Because less players equal more space to pass and move

Bilic has belief in his happy Hammers

West Ham United manager Slaven Bilic gave the media a surprise news line ahead of his side’s FA Cup third round clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers.

When asked whether he would rather win English football’s oldest trophy, or secure qualification for a place in next season’s Champions League, the assembled journalists expected Bilic to plump for the lure of joining Europe’s elite.

As such, there were some raised eyebrows when the Croatian answered, with a plain expression and barely a moment’s thought, that he would choose to lift the FA Cup. Seeing that he had caught everyone off guard, he explained – in broken English and with gestures that drew laughs of approval – that winning a competition allows you to lift a trophy, whereas mere qualification does not.

It was a refreshing slice of unassuming honesty from a manager who is rapidly gaining admirers at clubs across the country for his attractive brand of football and easy-going nature.

His side responded by beating Wolves 1-0, thanks to Nikica Jelavic’s late goal, and West Ham will face an FA Cup fourth round tie in addition to their already congested schedule of Premier League fixtures – not that Bilic is complaining.

The Hammers are 11/2 at 32Red at the time of writing to finish in the Premier League’s top six this season, and managers of their closest rivals speak frequently of the toll that the relentlessness of English football takes on their players.

But Bilic took to his post-match press conference after the win over Wolves to say that he is confident his squad has the strength in depth to cope with a cup run and a push for Premier League success.

He has every reason to be confident, having seen his players string together an eight-game unbeaten sequence, during which they have claimed victories over Southampton and Liverpool, and still managed to rest key players such as Dimitri Payet, Cheikhou Kouyate and Enner Valencia.

Bilic has also brought the best out of players who might not have been earmarked as potential game changers when the season began and West Ham set out to improve on their 12th-place finish in 2014/15.

The likes of Jelavic and Michail Antonio have been outstanding, but so too have veteran defender James Collins and loanee Arsenal defender Carl Jenkinson.

A solid defence has given West Ham the foundation upon which their excellent progress has been built, and in their last eight games they have conceded just three goals.

But Bilic, who was a towering centre-half for West Ham during the 1990s, has proven himself to be more than just a master of the art of solidity at the back. He has turned the Hammers into a dynamic attacking outfit who move the ball around with real flair and verve, and goals are pouring in from all over the pitch.

With 18 games still to play, West Ham have already scored 30 Premier League goals this season – a statistic that becomes all the more impressive when you consider that they scored 44 goals in the entirety of 2014/15.

Three of West Ham’s goals this season have come from a player who looks like he might be on the verge of rediscovering some of the best form of his career under Bilic. That player is Andy Carroll.

After an unsuccessful spell at Liverpool, where he played with the burdensome tag of the most expensive British footballer of all time, Carroll moved to West Ham on loan and scored seven goals in his first 24 games. Since then, his totals of two and five goals in the following seasons did little to convince Hammers fans that their club’s record signing would be a hit.

But when Carroll slammed home West Ham’s second goal in a 2-0 win over his former employers from Merseyside, he looked every inch the target man every manager wants in his side. He followed that performance up with a brilliant cameo against Wolves, providing the assist for Jelavic’s winner and staking a claim for a place in the Hammers’ forthcoming Premier League games.

Should the form of players like Carroll, Collins, Antonio, Valencia, Zarate and Kouyate continue, then Bilic will find himself with an embarrassment of riches at his disposal as he attempts to navigate his way to success on two front in the remaining months of this season.

West Ham are 25/1 at 32Red, 10Bet and others to clinch that Champions League qualifying spot that Bilic claims is less important to him than landing a trophy. In their current form, few would bet against West Ham having a good go at achieving both.