Farewell then Slaven, for now at least. In truth, the most impressive aspect of the Croatian’s tenure at West Ham was not that fondest of farewell thrillers against Manchester United at Upton Park or unleashing a season a half of brilliance from Dimitri Payet upon English football. Rather, it was the sheer volume of time the man was able to continue occupying his post beyond the point where his credibility seemingly became as shot as those who put him there.
In an age where managerial executions have increasingly become short, efficient affairs, the Bilic episode has been going on so long I’m not sure anyone can quite remember when or how it actually began. While most are melted by the hot-seat soon after it begins to singe, Bilic has quite contentedly sunk his frame into its upholstery and stoically soldiered on in the face of whatever calamity has magnetised towards him. And boy have there been calamities. In recent times Bilic’s West Ham have been to the setback what Henry Ford was to the automobile. They’ve industrialised it, mass-produced it, generated surpluses of setback to store for future periods. It reached a zenith away at Crystal Palace last week when the Hammers found themselves a goal up, seconds from victory and with the ball in the corner at the opposite end of the pitch only to deem that the best course of action would be to throw numbers forward and donate possession to their opponents.
Yet with every crushing blow, every fresh wound, Bilic has kept masochistically moving on. A dagger to the thigh one week, an arrow in the shoulder the next, but always gallantly limping towards his fate with hands in pockets and a quiet trickle of blood protruding from the bottom of his trouser leg. While losing one’s job is never a joyous business, when Bilic was finally discharged from his duties I dare say the overriding feeling was that of sweet relief. Go away, Slaven. Get yourself patched up and we’ll see you again soon. After all, if the pale, haunted face of David Moyes is worthy of taking your place then you’re sure as hell good enough to earn another spin on the managerial merry-go-round if you so desire.
Even while getting humiliated by Liverpool, Bilic was still doing us favours. Saturday’s fixture list was always going to provide the very lightest of starters compared to Sunday’s three-course feast. So slim were the pickings, however, that a magnifying glass was necessary to discern any activity whatsoever as four 1-0s, each more forgettable than the last, left tummy’s rumbling overnight. In the battle of the baseball caps, young prospect David Wagner (blue, trimmed with white) overcame old stager Tony ‘the Pulveriser’ Pulis (navy) thanks to a stunning right hook from Rajiv van La Parra. Elsewhere, Southampton and Burnley kept up their respective struggles/fortunes as Sam Vokes summoned every sinew of neck power to sneak the visitors an away win while Steve Cook waited until the last possible moment to do the same for Bournemouth at Newcastle. Glenn Murray’s kneed effort, meanwhile, left Paul Clement on his and completed a treble of away wins for Brighton in front of an increasingly unruly audience at Swansea (have you ever considered Wales, Slaven?).
Saturday’s only other outlier came at Stoke in a match noticeable for a lovely goal by Xherdan Shaqiri. The Swiss remains one of the Premier League’s enduring riddles. A player of genuine pomp and impertinence, he carries himself with the assured air of a medieval Crown Prince. What’s more, he possesses an undue muscularity and natural bulk for his size, making him look like a garden gnome on steroids. Shaqiri has all the natural class to legitimately justify stops at Bayern and Inter over the years, yet his own regal self-importance means that you’re only reminded of his existence in English football every six weeks or so when he pops up with a moment of trademark grandeur. On this occasion it was to bend the ball in off Kasper Schmeichel’s far post after the normally ever-so-assured Harry Maguire, another who falls into the ‘unit’ category, had inexplicably started wandering up the pitch as if being summoned by a divine spirit in Stoke city centre. Shaqiri’s finish brought the hosts level in the first half before Peter Crouch, his aesthetic and temperamental antithesis, did the same in the second to earn a point.
When Sunday finally rolled around it was Spurs who began it by unconvincingly seeing off Crystal Palace side to complete a famous week. Even less convincing was Arsene Wenger’s team selection at the Etihad where he abandoned the system his team have deployed all season and dropped his top goalscorer and headline summer signing. It was a mistake only exacerbated when Alexandre Lacazette subsequently scored within 10 minutes of coming on in the second half. That said, Arsenal can count themselves a little unlucky at the penalty given on Raheem Sterling and massively so at the missed offside for Gabriel Jesus’ third. You make your own luck, the old saying goes. In the case of Arsenal, they make their own misfortune.
Easily the biggest shock of the weekend was not any single result but rather the fact that Jose Mourinho chose not to play for a 0-0 draw away at another top six side. In normal circumstances looking for signs of excitement in these games is like scavenging for signs of life in a nuclear wasteland but, perhaps feeling the pressure of an eight point gap to City, perhaps egged on by a growing personal spat with Antonio Conte or perhaps just desperate to stop columns like this continuing to perpetuate Mourinho’s love of parking the bus, he finally threw off the shackles and went for it. All of which made his side’s defeat all the more amusing. The other takeaway from the game was the absence of David Luiz, whose precarious relationship with his manager seems to have finally run its natural course. Despite the huge gulf in their personalities, Conte and Luiz are united by being the kind of characters who seem to be at Chelsea for a good time rather than a long one and it would surely be no surprise to see both depart in the summer, if not sooner.
Naturally, the best game on Sunday was both the worst one on paper and the only one not televised as Everton defibrillated themselves back to life with a rousing second half effort at home to Watford. This being Everton, even completely the comeback wasn’t enough to guarantee victory as a last minute penalty to the visitors provided Tom Cleverley a pin with which to burst the resurgent blue balloon. Cleverley, however, clearly feeling a bit sorry for his former side, declined to trouble the target. Everton fans will hope they can look back on Sunday as the moment they turned a corner. The question over who will take them forward still lingers, but the club’s newfound momentum continued to gather pace only a day later when they received confirmation that David Moyes had been taken off the managerial market. Scientists believe the collective sigh of relief on Merseyside at the news may have been strong enough to distance the Earth from the Sun and postpone the effects of climate change for a generation. Slaven Bilic, folks. The man just keeps on giving.