BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
East London is the next destination for the Premier League previews on Fan Fuel, as West Ham led by Sam Allardyce look to repeat last season’s good work, when they finished tenth on their return to the top flight.
Allardyce thinks he is good enough to manage Real Madrid or Inter Milan, and while we’ll never have the chance to test out his hypothesis, we can at least acknowledge that Sam Allardyce is a very decent Premier League manager. Allardyce’s teams are tough to beat, can almost always score goals and at times he can even win mind games against managers in the upper echelons of the league.
The Boleyn Ground didn’t always appreciate the manager’s philosophy in the Championship, but whatever the merits of Allardyce’s approach, the Hammers fans took to him last season when West Ham found consistency in an extremely tough division. West Ham’s owners will be asking for more of the same this season, and after a good pre-season, Allardyce should easily meet expectations.
On defence: After a dip in standards during his last few seasons at Bolton, Jussi Jääskeläinen was revitalized after reuniting with Sam Allardyce. The Finnish goalkeeper was in terrific form, at times single-handedly earning the team a point with a series of saves. The fans at Upton Park took to him instantly, and despite being 38 will still be expected to play a crucial role between the sticks. Spanish goalkeeper Adrian has been bought in as back up, and should manage a decent job when called upon.
At the start of last season many Hammers fans were in trepidation about how Winston Reid would perform in the Premier League. Come the end of the season, Reid was named player of the year for West Ham. The centre-back from New Zealand took no prisoners, allying excellent positional sense and good strength to thwart opposing forwards. Reid is arguably the first name on the team sheet, and once again his partnership with James Collins at the back will be pivotal to the Hammers success. James Tomkins is the backup centre back, and though he doesn’t command the same presence in the penalty area as either of the first choice pair, Tomkins can be relied upon to perform under pressure. Cover is thin if two centre-backs get injured or suspended unless Guy Demel is moved to the centre in emergency situations or Allardyce entrusts the unproven Jordan Spence into the line-up. Don’t be surprised if the manager dips in to the market and signs another centre-back before the transfer window closes.
The Ivorian veteran Demel was another Hammer to have a really good season last time out at right-back. Demel’s physicality ensured that not many opposing wingers got past him easily, and his aerial ability served to help the centre-backs when defending against corners and set pieces. The other fullback slot will be taken by new signing, Romanian international captain, Razvan Rat. The left-back is a proven performer and his composure and solidity at the back will only further enhance West Ham’s back line. Allardyce favourite Joey O’Brien will serve as a utility fullback, equally comfortable slotting in as right-back or left-back. George McCartney is the backup specialist left-back, and expect youngster Danny Potts to play a role as well after impressing in pre-season.
The midfield: Allardyce has a decent amount of options from which to choose from in midfield. Senegalese international Mohamed Diamé and Mark Noble formed an excellent partnership in front of the defence last season, and the manager is likely to maintain the duo’s starting positions. Diamé became a fan favourite last season after putting in some match turning performances against the big teams. While Diamé has the attributes of a physical defensive midfielder it is his technical ability in tight areas that serves West Ham so well, gliding through challenges or switching play smartly. Noble compliments Diame well with his good marking sense and efficient tackling, while also chipping in with the occasional goal.
The midfielder who keeps things ticking and embodies the spirit of the team is captain Kevin Nolan. Another player who thrives under the management of Allardyce, Nolan epitomizes the directness of play under which West Ham thrive. Nolan will never hesitate to engage in a midfield challenge, and will sometimes even veer towards the unacceptable to ruffle his opponents. His all-action style can motivate the team in difficult moments, with his tackling and commitment often rousing the faithful at Upton Park. Nolan’s game isn’t based on inspiration alone, he creates chances for the forwards with his accurate crossing. His well-timed runs into the box led to his being the club’s leading scorer last season.
Gary O’Neill’s departure to QPR should result in Jack Collison getting more chances if any of the starting three midfielders are injured or suspended. Collison certainly has the talent to succeed at West Ham, and if Allardyce can convince him to make better decisions with the ball he could have an important role to play, as he can add an extra goal-scoring threat from midfield. Former French captain Alou Diarra remains at the club despite falling out with Allardyce last season, and if they can get over their disagreements, his experience could come in handy for the Hammers.
On the attack: Andy Carroll impressed for West Ham last season whenever he wasn’t injured. Despite still having some fitness concerns, Carroll’s permanent transfer from Liverpool was an important deal for the Hammers this summer. Without him, the Hammers often looked toothless in attack, and they can’t always rely on Nolan bailing them out with goals. Allardyce certainly understands Carroll’s strengths and when fit, he will tailor the team’s style to suit the tall forward.
Along with Carroll two other players who didn’t distinguish themselves at Liverpool will be expected to perform at Upton Park. Returning hero Joe Cole put in a few decent performances for the Hammers after his move in January, and will be expected to play a bigger part this year after a full pre-season under his belt. If Cole can flourish under Allardyce, he will be a lethal exponent in the hole behind Carroll, creating chances with his brilliant passes and scoring goals himself with his smart runs into the box. Allardyce can also entertain the notion of dropping one of his defensive midfielders to make the team more attacking in certain situations if Cole maintains consistency.
Stewart Downing has also been bought in after two miserable years at Anfield. The winger became a bit of a comic figure after his first season for Liverpool where he managed zero goals and zero assists. Downing showed small signs of improvement last season, but thankfully he won’t be under the same pressure at West Ham. He should succeed at West Ham, as wingers play a more prominent role in Allardyce’s system. Downing can alternate on either wing, and will share those responsibilities with Matt Jarvis and Ricardo Vaz Te. The signing of Downing should serve as a wakeup call to Jarvis and Vaz Te, who for all their running, were often found wanting with their final ball. Another of Allardyce’s trusted lieutenants Matt Taylor can also be used on the wing, and he remains one the best set piece exponents in the league.
Conclusion: West Ham had become a bit of a yo-yo club in the first decade of the twenty-first century, often following up seasons of exhilarating football with unexpected relegations. After the two David’s – Gold and Sullivan purchased the club, solidity was the need of the hour, and no manager does solid better than Sam Allardyce.
West Ham has suffered second season syndrome before in the Premier League, but Allardyce is a steadier hand than Alan Pardew. Some might portray him as cocky and negative, but Allardyce sticks to his principles and he rightly believes in his ability as a good manager. While a strong defence is essential, Allardyce’s team can put together exciting passages of play when his creative players are in sync, something he is rarely given credit for. West Ham will continue to be difficult to beat this season, and with a few more signings expected before the transfer window closes, Allardyce’s focus will be on making Upton Park a fortress and to continue the steady improvement of the team in upper mid-table.