Dimitri Payet’s long-term injury was a tragedy for the league as a whole, as the French midfielder has been a real asset to the division since arriving. But, beyond the gorgeous aesthetics that he takes to the treatment table with him, his absence has created a big structural problem at West Ham - and that was exposed brutally at White Hart Lane yesterday.
Slaven Bilic was able to win at The Emirates, The Etihad and at Anfield because his side are newly-resilient and because their back-six did an excellent job in all three of those games of protecting their goalkeeper. An unappreciated aspect within, however, was the role that Payet played in that structure. Ultimately, defending is a two-stage process: the actual repelling, of course, and then the movement up the pitch once the ball has been regained.
Payet was important to the latter, because he is exactly the sort of highly skilled player who can hold possession and then distribute it once his teammates have advanced up the field. Without that component, a team has little choice but to thrash their clearances up the field in the hope of capitalising on some vacant space or an error from an opposing defender. It’s like trying to climb a mountain without stopping and making camp halfway.
The graphic below - courtesy of Squawka.com - is taken from the five minutes immediately after half-time yesterday and shows West Ham’s passing.
The red arrows depict unsuccessful passes and they also illustrate the issue caused by the lack of a connecting player: West Ham turned the ball over five times in five minutes inside their own half. That’s partly attributable to panicky clearances, of course, but also to the the targeted forward players not possessing the requisite technical ability to protect the ball - just before Harry Kane scores, for example, Andy Carroll was dispossessed by Toby Alderweireld after taking a typically heavy touch and Spurs were then able to continue to build pressure. Then, in the immediate build-up to the goal, James Tomkins’ pass was intercepted by Christian Eriksen deep in the visiting half - a careless bit of play, for sure, but one forced by the lack of options available to the centre-half.
It was the sort of situation in which Payet would have dropped deep to collect a pass and then used the ball smartly and securely to advance his side out of their half.
Tottenham’s entire game-plan revolves around hunting turnovers and converting their opposition’s inaccuracies into attacking opportunities of their own, so playing in the way that West Ham did yesterday left the visitors facing inevitable defeat. Mauricio Pochettino has the benefit of a lot of flair and dynamism at the top of his formation and equipping those players - Eriksen, Son Heung-Min, Harry Kane etc - with a continuous supply of possession was always likely to end with a lots of shots being conceded and a lot of goals being scored.
Bilic is owed some sympathy, because the James McCarthy tackle which put Payet on the sidelines was atrocious, but injuries are a part of football and if West Ham are to avoid similar defeats in this kind of away game he will have to find a solution to this problem.
Or, failing that, a more reliable exit strategy has to be developed. Andy Carroll is one of the most physical targetman in the league and Diafra Sakho’s workrate in the channels is often outstanding, and so that combination does clearly offer an opportunity to go direct and long from the back - but then the onus is on the defensive players to play the right kind of pass up the pitch rather than just shovelling the ball forward into areas where their teammates are outnumbered and likely to be dispossessed.
Yesterday was mainly about Tottenham, because they were excellent, but it was also a bit to do with West Ham’s flawed approach and how eager they were to fall on their own sword. Bilic has made a really encouraging start in England and the good this season does outweigh the bad, but yesterday he was made to look tactically naive.
This has to be a lesson learned, because one player’s absence - no matter how good he is - can’t be allowed to derail an entire season.