If you had ever wondered what it sounds like to hear 50,000 people exhale in unison, you will have got the answer at the London Stadium on Saturday.
A run of five straight defeats had left West Ham in real danger of relegation, and even the presence of a Swansea team with one goal in their three previous outings was not enough to fill Hammers fans with confidence. Holding on to leads has not been their forte under Slaven Bilic, so it barely mattered that the visitors had only managed one shot on target as the match entered second-half stoppage time.
But West Ham did hold on, thanks to Cheikhou Kouyate’s first-half strike and some resilient defending from James Collins. The eight-point gap between the two clubs should be enough to keep Bilic’s team afloat and – potentially – the Croatian in a job.
It was less a case of papering over the cracks and more an example of shining a laser-pointer directly at the cracks to temporarily blind those watching. West Ham have done very little different in their victories in comparison to their defeats, and in a way that is a big part of the problem facing the club.
West Ham were not exactly solid in Bilic’s first season in charge, conceding two or more goals on 17 occasions in the league, 11 of those after the turn of the calendar year. Yet this time around they have long surpassed last season’s goals against tally of 51.
Angelo Ogbonna might not have made Juventus regret letting him leave, but the absence of the Italian has been felt keenly since his season-ending surgery at the end of January: the clean sheet against Swansea was West Ham’s first since Ogbonna’s place in the team was filled by £8m arrival Jose Fonte, with West Ham having shipped 21 goals in the Portuguese’s first nine appearances.
Fonte is just one of many unconvincing signings, at both ends of the pitch. Many fans will say that only West Ham could weaken their backline by signing European and world champions (the other being Alvaro Arbeloa, whose three league appearances have seen the Hammers ship nine goals), and it is the same story in attack. Simone Zaza, Jonathan Calleri, Ashley Fletcher, Gokhan Tore and Robert Snodgrass have contributed a combined one league goal, with Calleri and Tore likely to join the already-departed Zaza in not seeing their loan moves turned into permanent deals.
While the 20 points dropped from winning positions is not a huge change from last season’s total of 19, the Hammers did at least manage to claim 18 points from games in which they trailed in 2015/16. This term, the lack of a reliable goalscorer means the tally is yet to reach double figures.
Of course a succession of misfiring signings is no big deal when you have got a French magician scoring goals at a frankly unsustainable rate. Dimitri Payet netted nine times in the league last season and provided 12 assists; this time around, before his mid-season departure to Marseille, he scored only twice, as his shooting accuracy dropped from 55 per cent to 43 per cent according to Squawka. Similarly, Andy Carroll and Michail Antonio have gone from 57 per cent and 47 per cent respectively last season to 50 per cent and 41 per cent this – last term Carroll had the 12th-best accuracy of any forward to play more than half his club’s games, but this time around he does not trouble the top 20.
While he may not have hit the same heights this season, Payet continued to supply his teammates, and indeed remained top of the league for chances created until March 8 – not bad considering his last appearance in the competition came more than two months earlier. Perhaps it would have been a different story if Carroll had stayed fit in the first half of the season – West Ham won three of the four games in which the striker and Payet both started – but using the hypothetical ‘if Andy Carroll had stayed fit’ is akin to suggesting West Ham’s pre-Bilic success might have changed if only Sam Allardyce opted to play open, expansive football every week.
There is the small matter of a new stadium, with what can be best described as a mixed atmosphere, but games like the Swansea victory – a low-percentage goal from distance followed by hearts-in-mouths defending – simply have not rolled around as much, and early-season slices of fortune may well have changed that.
As an example, in four memorable matches against Arsenal and Manchester City last season, West Ham were out-shot 76 to 43 and had more than 40 per cent possession just once, but walked away with eight points and a 9-6 aggregate scoreline. The corresponding fixtures this season (73 to 32, with less than one third of possession on three occasions) have brought zero points and an aggregate scoreline of 2-15.
If anything, many of this season’s results have demonstrated how readily the Hammers were able to ride their luck in the 2015/16 campaign. For all the measurable changes – and there are more than a few – the average tenure of a Premier League manager rarely makes too many allowances for luck, and if you reversed Bilic’s two campaigns at the helm there is every chance he would not have lasted this long. The next six games should determine whether there will be a third season for the Croatian.