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West Ham have proven they can play to two game plans – now they must work on perfecting one

West Ham United striker Andy Carroll

When West Ham United succumbed to a 2-0 defeat to recently promoted Newcastle United at the end of August, fans could have been forgiven for assuming they were in for another long battle to stay in the Premier League.

That loss represented their third in the opening three matches of the new top-flight campaign and manager Slaven Bilic was under enormous pressure to turn things around.

Fast forward two months and the Hammers are no longer in the relegation zone having been beaten only twice in their subsequent seven league fixtures, picking up two wins and three draws along the way.

That record could have looked even better had they not thrown away a two-goal lead to allow basement club Crystal Palace to snatch a point at Selhurst Park last weekend.

Despite the improvement in results, however, Bilic is still under fire from some quarters and there remains confusion about exactly what style of play he is attempting to implement at the London Stadium.

The Irons seem to have two options in terms of attacking threat; either a direct, long-ball style with Andy Carroll as the target man, or a counter-punching approach as seen in the draw with Palace.

Bilic’s side have proven that they can play to both game plans, but which can be the more effective going forward?

The East Londoners picked up their first Premier League victory of the season at home against Huddersfield Town in September in a performance that was reliant on the strengths of Carroll up top.

West Ham looked to play the ball up early to the England international, who gave them an outlet when under pressure and helped to occupy the Terriers’ centre-halves.

When Carroll plays he inevitably draws focus from the opposing defence and this was evident, particularly in the second goal of the night as he lurked at the back post on a corner, only to see the delivery go to the near and eventually be poked home by Andre Ayew.

Against Palace, the powerful hitman was left on the bench as Bilic favoured the more diminutive Ayew and Javier Hernandez as a front two.

The Hammers first goal saw them instigate a slick passing move that left the Mexican to sweep home with a trademark finish from inside the box just after the half hour mark.

The second was an individual effort from his strike partner Ayew, who picked up a loose ball in the middle of the park and drove at the Eagles’ backline, firing in a superb strike from the edge of the area.

In both instances, the ball was moved from the halfway line to the back of the net within 10 seconds, giving the opposition little time to settle and regain their defensive shape.

Were it not for Wilfried Zaha’s equaliser in the dying seconds of injury time, after Michail Antonio naively gave the ball away when keeping it would have ensured the three points, then West Ham would have been left reflecting on a textbook away performance that showed both resilience and opportunism.

In terms of which strategy could serve them better as the season progresses, the swift counter-attacking as seen against Palace showed the way forwards given the personnel at Bilic’s disposal.

Whilst Carroll is a useful option to have in reserve, his fitness is always a question and building a style of play around him is therefore risky business.

A faster-paced approach would make better use of the technical skills of playmaker Manuel Lanzini as well as allowing Ayew and Hernandez more space to exploit in the final third.

Having Carroll as a backup gives Bilic the option to go long if required late in the game but it bypasses some of the Hammers’ most talented players and should not be the go-to choice.

If the former Besiktas boss can perfect a counter-punching style then it should not be long before his side are climbing the Premier League table.

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