As I finish up this post, I am currently out of beer. You might think this would put me in a bad mood… and normally you’d be right. But we are mere hours away from our match up against QPR and have five Premier League matches under our belt, and so far this season, West Ham have made pundits look quite stupid and pre-season betting odds like like a joke.
We are currently sitting on eight (8) points, with two wins, two draws, and a solitary loss (in a match that we simply did not turn up for). In those five games, we have three clean sheets and a goal difference of +1. All told, this is not what most “experts” expected of West Ham under Sam Allardyce at the start of this campaign.
Chastised for his neolithic football, West Ham have looked much tougher to beat since Big Sam’s arrival than they have in a long time, with a high team energy and work ethic, cohesion, and spirit (thanks in no small part to our captain, Kevin Nolan). But there’s more to this team than simply parking the bus and hoofing the ball 70 yards up the pitch and hoping for a miracle.
Not to get off topic, but Southampton, who played “better football” all last season, looks like the Premier League’s new whipping boys, conceding six to Arsenal (admittedly one of the league’s strongest sides) because they insist on pressing high and playing open, attacking football, which leaves acres of space for the opposing attackers to exploit. West Ham, meanwhile, lays deeper, uses team defending, and hassles the hell out of the opposition in the middle of the pitch.
Sure, we play long balls frequently, but we also play great crosses from the wide positions and some great through balls, too. The point is, we look solid enough to beat people, and not from one particular style of play, but from freekicks, corners, long balls, crosses, and occasionally well-worked moves. What you can’t argue with is that, when we lose the ball, everybody tracks back and helps out.
When we do go forward, we spread the play to the flanks very well, and our crosses consistently look dangerous. Our record over these first five matches has shown that we are tough to beat. Now on to a few of my highlights so far this season…
Kevin Nolan looks set to have a 15 goal season from midfield, and that’s without taking penalties. But his contribution in terms of leadership both on and off the field is simply invaluable. Every time we concede a foul in midfield, Nolan picks up the ball and has a chat with the referee and opposing players, allowing time for our boys to get back into position. Simple, but brilliant.
And you can see how much he’s committed to the club simply by the look on his face after his two brilliant but failed attempts at goal and his actual goal against Sunderland. Make no mistake, the man’s a winner. And while he hasn’t always been the most appreciated of players by the fans, he’s certainly convinced me. He is all over the pitch, encouraging and organizing the team, and you can bet that he’s been instrumental in getting Andy Carroll nice and settled in East London.
The signing of Diame looks to be extremely astute, with the big man showing strength, grit, intelligence, and a surprising amount of skill in the middle of the pitch. He and Noble combine fantastically to shield the back four and allow our wide players and Kevin Nolan to push up quickly.
But he offers more than just defensive security, with his seemingly endless energy, tireless running, and efficient passing really adding to our attacks. He has to be our signing of the transfer window thus far.
As for Diame’s buddy in midfield, are we all in agreement that Mark Noble looks to have improved even more? Vital when looking at West Ham’s tactical disposition, Noble had the most touches (123) of the ball in Europes Top 5 leagues during the weekend of the Sunderland match (credit to @FootyBrains for the stat, and if you have a twitter account then give them a follow!), and he totally dictates our tempo, play, and distribution, while giving our back line some great protection.
So far this term, he has a pass success rate of 87.3 %, or 288/330 (again, credit to @FootyBrains, really go give them a follow, it’s a great account!), showing he’s a true product of The Academy, and thank heavens he has just signed a new three-year deal with the club. He frequently makes the simple pass, and by that I mean the smart pass, keeping our team in possession and pulling the opponents out of position.
His movement off the ball is really quite good, and his ability to swing the play to the flanks is uncanny. Still an underrated aspect of his play are his corners and freekicks, which created countless chances and general havoc against Sunderland. He’s not only West Ham through and through, but he’s top quality as well.
Shifting the focus away from midfield (our strength this year in my opinion), I want to give some praise to our defense (including Jussi) for their impressive start to the season. Under Big Sam’s approach, defenders rely more on discipline, steel, and nous rather than blinding pace or skill, as the team defends as a unit, but that doesn’t mean individuals haven’t been impressive in and of themselves.
Winston Reid looks to finally be fulfilling the promise he showed during the 2010 World Cup for New Zealand, and he’s been a real rock at the back and a real threat on corners. Guy Demel has made the jump up from the Championship well, and seems to have found his feet at right back. Strong and tough, he’s shown on a couple of occasions that he’s willing to make a well-timed overlapping run.
It’s nice to see James Collins back again, though he’s made several key errors (his failed passed led to Sunderland’s goal) and it’s a bit sad to see Tomkins on the bench. Still, Collins is a reliable, experienced center back, and can you really complain that your backup central defender is James Tomkins?
Jussi Jaaskelainen has come into the squad nearing the twilight of his career, having worked under Big Sam before, to cover for the money seeking (and bench warming) Rob Green. While he hasn’t been perfect, he’s kept us in games plenty of times simply because he has the reactions of a 21 year old on crack. His performance at Norwich was truly a Man of the Match display.
Up front, Andy Carroll is our clear number one choice to lead the line, and it looks like he’ll be fit enough to at least get a run out against Arsenal on October 6, which is encouraging, as we looked infinitely more dangerous against Fulham than we have before or since.
We can only hope that Liverpool don’t recall Carroll in January (he really doesn’t fit into the system Brendan Rodgers has implemented). I believe there’s still so much more to come from Carroll. Our first choice backup is Carlton Cole, who plays more or less the same game as Andy Carroll, but lacks the extreme physicality that Carroll possesses.
He looked isolated and overwhelmed against Norwich, and while he looked better against Sunderland, he still managed to be neutralized quite often. Still, Cole is a threat with both his head and his feet, and he’s got plenty of experience at the highest level. Vaz Te is listed as a forward but continually finds his play restricted to the right flank in our standard 4-5-1 formation. He is probably our best player at dribbling at defences, and he’s shown he can be just as dangerous in the Premier League as he was in the Championship.
We really discovered a gem when we bought him for a mere half million. Sadly we have seen very little of both Matt Jarvis and Yossi Benayoun, but when they came on against Sunderland at around 60 minutes, West Ham immediately looked much more dangerous. Jarvis’s crossing and dribbling was particularly good and Benayoun’s habit of drifting into the middle almost led him to score a goal, if only his legs were but a few inches longer.
Now, I don’t want to take anything away from Matty Taylor, who is incredibly solid and reliable and who can deliver some exquisite deep crosses, but he simply doesn’t possess the flair or pace that Jarvis does. Either way, though, West Ham certainly has options going forward with how we want to play on the wings. Look to see Jarvis and Benayoun getting more and more time this season.
If you’ve read this far, I applaud and appreciate your dedication. To wrap it up, I’m very pleased with the squad (and manager) so far. We’ve made a fantastic start, and I hope we continue to build on it before our schedule gets tougher, because thus far we’ve definitely had it a bit easy. Big Sam has silenced most of the critics and West Ham are a team that can be quite dangerous going forward, even when the play is a bit predictable, and almost always a tough team to play.
Teams won’t like the idea of facing us with the way we’ve been playing. Big clubs won’t like the prospect of breaking us down. Things are looking good, and we are where we belong. Bring it on.
Follow Patrick on Twitter – @ptempi