Saturday, 3 January 2015

Will the bubbles continue to blow at West Ham

 The Christmas/New Year period saw a few ripples appearing on the surface of what has become a tranquil scene at West Ham United over the past 12 months.

The club certainly seems to have come a long way, taking 56 points over the past year. A  period let’s not forget that began this time last year with the club staring relegation in the face.

Manager Sam Allardyce was under pressure, from fans and media alike. The pressure reached a high point in January when the team were thrashed 6-0 at Upton Park by a rampant Manchester City in the semi-final of the League Cup. This followed a 5-0 reversal in the FA Cup third round at Championship side Nottingham Forest, when Allardyce had put out a virtual reserve team for the game.

Things turned in February with the club securing four wins on the trot and pulling clear of the relegation zone. Results though continued to fluctuate right to the end of the season.

Fans were calling for the manager’s head and it seemed that there were those in the boardroom who didn’t disagree. Allardyce was told to change his footballing style and play more the West Ham way – code for less direct aerial bombardment.

There was a period of a couple of weeks in the summer, where it seemed Allardyce’s fate was in the balance, as the board failed to give him the vote of confidence needed. Cynics suggested West Ham were scouring around for who else was available. In the end though, the manager remained. It should be noted that his biggest backer was Chief Executive Karren Brady, who has since been totally vindicated in her judgement.

Since that time, the currency of the manager has been in the ascent. The club made some outstanding signings in the summer, bringing in Diafra Sakho, Enner Valencia, Cheikou Kouyate, Aaron Cresswell, Diego Poyet and Mauro Zarate. Carl Jenkinson, Morgan Amalfitiano and perhaps most crucially Alex Song came in on loans for the season.

The season began with Andy Carroll on the sidelines, so Sakho and Valencia formed a new more mobile pacey attack. The team played a different style of football, less aerial bombardment, more short passing and through balls for the two front men. Stewart Downing was given a free role at the head of a triangle formation anchored by Song. The goals came, with Sakho going on a seven goal scoring run. Valencia announced his arrival with a stunning 25 yarder at Hull.

The full backs were also a revelation, breaking down the wings at every opportunity, providing quality crosses. The results came, West Ham attaining top four status, which they held onto up to Christmas. Carroll returned, seemingly also fitting into the new way of doing things.

All good so far, happy Hammers fans everywhere. The Christmas period though has provided something of a blip, causing a few of the critics to starting asking questions again.

The period began well with a 2-0 win over Leicester, though the writing did seem on the wall. West Ham took their chances well but the away team could have come away with some of the spoils given better finishing. Notably, home keeper Adrian was the man of the match with three great saves.
Next up Chelsea. For some unbeknown reason, Allardyce decided to rotate selection, leaving Song and Sakho on the sideline until the second half. This handed the initiative to Chelsea who took control of the game. A 2-0 reversal, the predictable result.
Then came Arsenal, an excellent game where West Ham should have gained at least point from rather than the 2-1 reversal. Finally, a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to West Bromwich Albion.

In the background, there were some rumblings with a rather public fall out between Zarate and the manager. The Argentinian player, who scored twice and showed some excellent promise during the limited appearances he was allowed, was sent out on loan to QPR.

He was clearly disillusioned, rather stupidly suggesting that Allardyce was not picking him because it was co-owner David Sullivan who signed him. This brought the response from the manager that he was not good enough.

The spat, whilst on the face of it the outburst of a disappointed player, did also remind fans that below the surface there are some tensions.

The question of style could also resurface, with a recent analysis on Match of the Day revealing that there was not a notable drop in the number of long balls being pumped in by West Ham this season. A key difference though seems to be the role of Carroll in the this context. West Ham do play a more direct game when the former Liverpool forward is playing, compared to when the Valencia/Sakho partnership is in operation. Allardyce has asserted that the different strikers offer more options – a correct analysis but one likely to cut little ice if results start to turn.

Allardyce is riding high at the moment but must be well aware that he needs to be winning virtually all the time to keep some people happy at the club.

So entering the New Year, things are looking good for the Hammers but there may well still be some choppy waters ahead before the end of the sea*son – with expectations so heightened by the excellent form up to Christmas – Allardyce is now likely to be judged against the ever higher standards his team have been achieving.

* "A mid-season look at Big Sam's West Ham" - Morning Star - 3/1/2015


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