The Good, The Bad and The Unplayable: Deconstructing West Ham’s Change in Fortunes This Season

The bubbles blew around the Boleyn Ground as Swansea kicked off their last ever game at the venue, and lingered in the seasonally optimistic air of West Ham’s iconic and soon-to-be departed stadium. West Ham’s intentions this season have largely involved improving the bad atmosphere amongst home fans who were dissatisfied with the turgid long ball tactics of Big Sam in his previous seasons at the club.

Background

Recruitment-wise the club looked towards younger, less-proven players such as Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho in the summer, and the 9 signings with an average age of 24 have all enjoyed positive starts on the whole.  The club is very openly looking towards next season’s controversial and lucrative move to the Olympic Stadium in strategy, and a week where they have earned 3 wins and risen to their highest position in the league in a decade would have been highly satisfying for Big Sam, the Premier League’s manager of the month twice in the last six months.

The reliance on the partnership and close friendship of Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll was also a source for concern for the Hammers faithful, and even though the pair started the game against the Swans it was the man that once cost either the price of Roman Abramovich’s lawyers for one case or 3,207,647 lives (depending on where your priorities lie) that stole the headlines. The team performance as a whole however was very impressive, and it must have been a pleasure for the big AC to play in these conditions.

Pre-Game

Both West Ham and Swansea have been mostly impressive this season, and both were enjoying their best ever Premier League starts. West Ham’s 24 points from 14 matches, including one loss in their last eight, is their best return up to this point in the top flight since in 1983-84 (29 points), while most of Swansea’s 22 points have come in an impressive recent run including just one loss and three clean sheets in their past 6 games.

The match between the two at the Boleyn Ground last season also added spice to the affair. Carroll popped up with a couple of assists before an altercation with Chico Flores earned him a red, and the striker made it known before the match that he was looking to score some revenge. Despite the red card West Ham haven’t conceded against Swansea in their last three, with Swansea’s only win in their 23 visits to West Ham in fact coming way back in August 1956.

Tactics

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I think the system is pretty much the same as last year in all honesty, it’s just more effective with this player configuration. Two strikers in the box at crosses plus Kevin Nolan most of the time (when he rather than Downing is in the most advanced midfield position) suits Sam’s preferred method of attack, getting the ball as close to the goal as possible and shooting/heading from the best possible position, which is normally the six yard line.

It was the summer purchases however, namely full backs Aaron Cresswell for £3.5m from Ipswich and Carl Jenkinson on loan from Arsenal, strikers Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia (FC Metx, £4.2m; Pachuca, £12m), energetic defensive utility machine Cheikhou Kouyate (Anderlecht, £.6.25m) and Teddy Sheringham as an attacking coach that have vastly changed the fortunes of the old East End club.

Individual Roles

Adrián: Goalkeeper

Fairly small in stature despite his 190cm frame, the free signing from Real Betis is comfortable with the ball at this feet.

He’s grown in confidence from crosses (despite Reid and Tomkins and Carroll swatting most of them away) and has great reflexes.

The Spaniard hadn’t been beaten at Upton Park since David Silva slotted a consolation goal past him in a 2-1 victory, and it was a good first time finish from Bony that beat him this time round.

You’d maybe have expected a Courtois or De Gea to keep it out, but aside from his ability to perform miracles the Andalusian is a pretty decent keeper.

Carl Jenkinson – Wing Back

Although Aaron Cresswell has received more plaudits generally, both he and Jenkinson have been vital in implementing this formation.

With their solid defensive abilities, high stamina levels and precision crosses they fulfil all the requirements of both full back and midfielder on the flanks, giving the Hammers an extra player in the middle and crucially an extra player up front.

The goal was Jenkinson’s fault to be fair, but the player he was ostensibly shunted out on loan for, Calum Chambers, had been torn a new one by Jefferson Montero the previous week so he won’t feel quite so bad about that one.

Jenkinson’s crossing has always been good, but now it is one of the most potent weapons in his side’s arsenal, he will be hoping to put it into regular use when he returns to his parent club. His delivery into the box yielded the equalising goal, and any striker would be happy with the service that he has been providing the Hammers frontline from wide areas.

Winston Reid and James Tomkins: Centre Halves

Reid on the left, Tomkins on the right, this is a very solid defensive partnership. Reid plays ball more often but both are happy to distribute either long or short and also dribble out. The New Zealander also tends to sit a little further ahead of his Welsh counterpart, and throws himself into challenges near the halfway line with the knowledge he has cover behind him.

They aren’t perfect, however, and their desire to stay in tandem was their downfall for an early concession. Bony, who is for my money is the best out-and-out striker in the league after Aguero, recognised the determination of the defence to stay in line and drifted to the edge of the area rather than attacking the 6 yard box, where he knew the two would dominate any insertion of the ball. The Ivorian became Swansea’s outright top Premier League goalscorer ever with that goal, pulling away from Michu, who is out on loan at Napoli.

Despite this error, Reid is highly sought after, and has been linked to Arsenal either in January or the summer, when his contract expires. His tweet after the game however indicated his satisfaction at the club, and fans will be hopeful of an extension in the coming weeks.

Aaron Cresswell: Complete Wing Back

If Leighton Baines isn’t worried about this £3.5m summer signing from Ipswich already, he should be. Cresswell’s excellent delivery from open play and set pieces is probably the most effective form of chance creation at Sam’s disposal. His ability to hit the team’s target man from 50-60 yards away is excellent, a throwback to his Ipswich days when the only real attacking threat was the physically imposing David McGoldrick.

In the crazy game last season where Steve McLaren gave an impromptu half time team talk to a Derby County side that was 1-4 down at half-time against Ipswich but came back to draw 4-4, Cresswell had already laid on 4 assists by the time Schteve had gotten to dish out the hair dryer treatment.

The wing back’s offensive intent in this game was demonstrated when he almost equalised in the 35th minute when he was the furthest man forward heading an effort towards goal from the edge of the 6 yard box, and he took up an attacking position in line with the midfielders throughout the match.

Despite impressive forward forays, Cresswell is also a solid defender, as any Allardyce full back must be. He also howed his pace in a straight 20 yard sprint with the Wayne Routledge in the 30th minute, beating the pacey winger to the touchline to prevent a cross into the box.

Alex Song – Defensive Midfielder/Defensive Pivot

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Along with Jenkinson and perhaps even Reid given his contract situation and Arsenal’s lack of a number 5 in their squad, Song should be playing for Arsenal this season. Whether it was pride, contractual incompatibility or some other inexplicable reason that saw him arrive at the Boleyn Ground rather than the Emirates, Song’s availability and Arsenal’s squad depth (or lack thereof it) should have meant that he made a return to North London this summer.

Given he drops into the deep holding position between the central defenders that Arsenal have been crying out, and can also deputise at centre half where the Gunners only really have two senior options, you don’t even have to mention his familiarity with the club, manager, teammates  (including new talisman Alexis Sanchez) and system to consider it a half decent option.

In a system where both the fullbacks bomb on it is absolutely crucial that the defensive midfielder acts as both an attacking pivot to supply the other central midfielders as well as a defensive pivot between the centre halves. His drive into space and weighted pass out to the wing also created the first goal to cap off a performance that exuded leadership and determination.

 

Stewart Downing: Central Midfielder/Roaming Playmaker

Stewart Downing is pretty good. There, I said it. Playing on left of central midfield three today, he pressed all over the pitch while the less mobile Kevin Nolan filled in behind. The left inside channel that Andy Carroll vacated by coming deep for headers was a pocket that Downing exploited all day, and he showed great determination, desire and work rate for the full 90.

Equally adept at providing goalscoring opportunities with either his left or right, the once-again England international also hasn’t lost his pace yet, and sometimes beats opponents with acceleration and power alone. He’s shown his passing ability more when in the number 10 role so far this term, but a bit of flair and a pin point pass in injury time should have provided Sakho a second.

 

Cheikhou Kouyaté: Central Midfielder/Ball Winning Midfielder

Epitomises the versatility and physicality in the team. Tall, athletic and quick with lots of stamina, the Senegalese destroyer can operate in a number of defensive and midfield positions.

Mark Noble normally provides the extra legs lost when Kevin Nolan is on the pitch, and despite dubious ability in the opposition half Kouyaté’s tireless ball winning is highly valuable.

I’m not sure that his position will be so advanced in future. Sometimes after making attacking bursts that are evocative of Patrick Vieira, he often exhibits the first touch of Patrick Bateman, while a similar story unfolded closer to his own goal when Bony almost capitalised on his clumsy control to double the Swans’ lead. An awful shot from a good position in the 35th minute with his right foot showed his poor ability with his weaker peg.

A final note on Kouyaté, he appears to be one of the chief banter merchants at the club judging from his Twitter. He and Senegal national teammate Diafra Sakho share a budding bromance which often includes Alex Song as well.

Screenshot 2014-12-13 01.37.17

 

Nolan: Central Midfielder (Attacking)

As a midfielder that loves to make runs into the box, he has characterised Sam’s desire for high statistical percentages of headers won (which brings long pass completion up) and shots on target in high impact areas, mainly from crosses and set pieces.

Despite his evident lack of stamina and speed in relation to his peers, Nolan’s off the ball movement and ability to get a shot away in the box rivals anybody in the league, and are priceless commodities if you can accommodate him.
Tends to stay fairly deep trying to find the ball facing away from goal, waiting to turn, play the ball to the wing and hitting the subsequent cross coming in at pace. He doesn’t mind fulfilling some defensive duties from this position either, and in fact won the ball in the build up to the second goal.

 

Enner Valencia/Diafra Sakho: Striker/Advanced Forward

Only Chelsea (12) have had more Premier League goalscorers this season than West Ham (11), and their manager believes this is the best strike force he’s ever had.

Enner Valencia is one of the most agile players I’ve ever seen, and his vertical leap is ridiculous. He’s also got a real eye for goal and likes to track back as a bonus. but he’d only had 25 minutes against West Brom in midweek since returning from injury and was withdrawn for Diafra Sakho, West Ham’s top scorer who was himself returning from injury, in the second half.

When asked before the game if he’d swap Sakho for Bony Big Sam said:

“No I wouldn’t. We’re looking forward to having Diaf back, I’m not sure he’s ready to start a match yet. We’ve also got Enner back, he played 25 minutes against West Brom and then we’ve also got Carlton Cole and Mauro Zarate so this is the best striking options we’ve ever had.”
 

With 8 goals in all competitions and 7 in the Premier League, it’s hard to choose another example of better money spent by any club on one player in the last transfer window. Strong, good touch and hard working, this is another player perfect for Sam’s system. These qualities were evident for Fabianski’s red card, where he stayed up despite the Polish keeper’s hefty challenge on him. It was slightly unfair on Fabianski and Garry Monk’s team, as replays showed Sahko handled the ball in the build-up, but the attacker won’t lose any sleep over the misdemeanour.
Sakho’s running in either channel was where he hurt the Swans, and in addition to the goal and red card he hit the post twice through these routes, the first time in the left channel and the second time in the right. Andy Carroll was screaming at him for the ball across the box to complete his hat trick after the second time the woodwork was hit, but Sakho’s efforts up to that point had deserved a goal. An excellent finish over substitute keeper Tremmel saw him notch in the end, and another might have been added in injury time but his powerful strike was parried over well by the German.

 

Andy Carroll: Target Man

The Geordie’s performance in this game cannot be understated. 13 headers out of 17 won took the giant striker’s total number of headers won this season to 51, and this statistic told the story of the game. When Carroll’s in the team, the game plan is to aim at his forehead, and as always he excelled in this role. There are days when it is just impossible to challenge the Shearer devotee in the air, and unfortunately for Kyle Bartley, who initially dealt rather well with the threat of the number 9, this was one such day. From the moment his incredible guided header nestled into the back of the net to tie the game, there was little doubt as to where the points would end up. A classic finish from the Carroll highlight reel, it was almost an inevitability that he would claim at least another by the end of the action. Bartley’s desperation also manifested itself in a push on the devastating striker which should have resulted in a penalty.

To just talk of Carroll’s dominance in the air however would be doing him a disservice. Hold up play on the ground was also excellent, and his assist to Sakho was in fact a 30 yard lofted through pass rather than a flick on. His size is also an equally good defensive weapon, used to win the ball many times in his own half, plenty of those being inside Adrian’s 18 yard box.

Drawing The Line

In conclusion, West Ham fans have a lot to be pleased about, and Big Sam’s work in changing expectations and the mood at the club must be given a huge amount of credit. Karren Brady has shown the ambition of the club at board level in mentioning Steven Gerrard’s name as a possible signing, and the one they call Allardici hasn’t hidden the fact he wants to sign a long-term contract. The number of young signings this summer to bolster an excellent youth academy going forward further underlines the potential at the club, and I don’t think the Happy Hammers rejuvenation will be grinding to a halt any time soon.


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