About a year ago, the chants across the terraces at the Boleyn Ground were “8 months till Millwall!” as West Ham United were stranded bottom of the table with little reason to be optimistic. The fans were making their discontent towards manager ‘Big Sam’ Allardyce abundantly clear, they didn’t want the former Bolton and Newcastle man at the helm at Upton park. Even after a remarkable resurgence in the New Year that threw the Hammers into a 13th place finish the fans still wanted Allardyce out.
The problem was a perceived philosophical difference on how West Ham should play football between fans and manager. The fans believing an attacking, entertaining, smooth passing game is what they deserved. Whereas Allardyce has made a career from a route one tactic, with his big centre backs and even bigger centre forwards winning everything in the air with midfielders who constantly break up and disrupt the game. This is why prior to the season starting ‘Big Sam’ was a favourite for first manager to be sacked, with West Ham fans almost hoping for a poor start to the season to get rid of him. Now here we are heading into November, there isn’t a long ball in sight from West Ham and the Hammers are sitting in a Champions League spot off the back of a massive 2-1 home win against the title holders Man City. The question I think needs answered is what exactly has happened at Upton Park over the summer to cause this?
A successful transfer window has played a major part. New signings; Alex Song (loan), Morgan Amalfitano, Enner Valencia, Diafra Sakho, Carl Jenkinson (loan) and Aaron Cresswell have all established themselves as key members of a new look West Ham for the forthcoming season. Aaron Cresswell has taken to Premier League life like he was bred for it, showing the type of form that will see him in consideration for the England set up sooner rather than later. Carl Jenkinson looks a more comfortable fit in West Ham’s right back slot than he ever did for Arsenal where he always seemed bereft of confidence and out his depth, he seems a new confident player since pitching up at West Ham. Having two; competent, youthful full-backs flanking the same rough and tumble centre backs ‘Big Sam’ looks to employ helps give an extra dimension to the defence and an option of a ball out wide to start an attack rather than a punt forward they are usually accustomed to.
What has been the biggest transformation for the side is the midfield and attack. Morgan Amalfitano showed his pedigree for the Premier League last year at West Brom and is continuing in that vein for West Ham. His goal against Man City personifying his game bursting out of midfield to get in the box for a goal scoring opportunity, adding a dynamic to the Hammer’s midfield that seemed loss with the sale of Diame to Hull City. The most important element however is the addition of Alex Song. The fact the Cameroon internationals two most recent clubs are Barcelona and Arsenal says it all. He has had his footballing education at two clubs that near outlaw a long ball forward. He has spent his career playing in midfields where ball retention is paramount and should he play a direct ball it is a pin point pass into a player rather a big hoof forward. By placing Song at the heart of the midfield West Ham have a player who will not only win, but also, recycle the ball frequently between midfield, attack and defence. It gives other players in the team a go to man rather than an out ball up the park to Kevin Nolan or Andy Carroll. Keeping Noble next to him completes the dynamic. One player willing to burst forward both on and off the ball joining attack in Amalfitano, one to keep the ball so he can orchestrate the next attack and a player like Noble who will break up play, win the ball and get it to the key men.
The team is complete by the two new strikers; Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho. The Ecuadorian signed from the Mexican league and Frenchman have lit up defences in the early weeks of the Premiership season. From what I’ve watched of them I don’t know if there is a striking partnership that defenders would be more worried by on their day (8 goals between the two of them is testament to that). There may be better footballing pairs, perhaps facing Falcao and Van Persie would seem quite daunting. But, it is the physical and athletic nature of the two strikers that would be hellish for defences to deal with. Just look what the did to the Champions centre back pairing. Not only are both capable with the ball at their feet, they are strong enough to hold up the ball for support from midfield, both are extremely quick off the mark and at full pace (don’t see many defenders beating them in a foot race) and are both athletic and strong enough to contend in the air with some of the league’s biggest brutes. The partnership has evolved ‘Big Sam’s’ philosophy through near necessity, both are capable of playing football and will do that rather than just trying to win headers and knock downs. Most importantly, they both have shown an ability to score different types of goals. Valencia already has a few screamers to his name, while Sakho has scored; headers, tap-ins, chips etc. all manner of goals. Allardyce’s teams are usually equipped to defend but now it is their attack that is to be feared.
What cannot be ignored as a major factor in West Ham’s unexpected early season success is the rebirth of Stewart Downing. With a new role behind the two new strikers Downing seems to have emerged with a new found confidence not seen since his Aston Villa days. With players behind him capable of getting the ball to him in the right area and two lightning quick work horses playing in front of him Downing is clearly blossoming again. He has created 26 chances for the Hammers this season which is a good number after 9 games while securing 3 assists and a goal. I don’t believe he is currently one of the best players in the league and neither is he showing the the type of form people had always seen as his potential when he was England’s answer to a left winger. What he is doing is playing the role he is designated very well for a West Ham team which currently seems to have every cog in its clock-work ticking over with the surprising quality.
Can this form keep up all season? Could ‘Big Sam’ lead this team to securing the fourth spot they currently occupy? Maybe a Europa league spot is possible. To me I think right now they are such a surprise package that no one has figured out how to deal with them yet. This West Ham side is currently so far removed from what most teams will expect to be up against from an Allardyce side that they aren’t prepared for it. As the season progresses we will see what managers try to employ to deal with the evolved West Ham squad when they aren’t such a surprise package. It will be interesting to see what role Andy Carroll takes up when he is fully fit, does Allardyce break up the winning formula he has landed on so far? I’d argue that ‘Big Sam’ wouldn’t have been playing both Sakho and Valencia had Carroll been fit from the start. He would’ve persevered with the big Geordie, and perhaps done well but not achieved the early success they have so far with the players I have mentioned. What is happening at West ham? I think West Ham are playing the way they are due to the personnel they have acquired. Perhaps that’s not being fair on Allardyce’s credentials as a manager since it is him who signed them afterall. However having watched his sides for many years, I personally believe that the players in Allardyce’s team now won’t allow for a route one style of football, because they are better than that.