West Ham have been graced by Mark Noble’s steady presence in midfield for over a decade now, but with the local legend entering the final stage of his career, it’s time his role in the squad evolved.
Twenty-nine is not so old for your average footballer – in fact for most professionals it’s when they’re at the peak of their powers. But Mark Noble’s career path has taken a route that is anything but conventional.
Much like Wayne Rooney, Noble has performed towards the summit of the English game since before he was legally allowed to buy himself a drink – and like Rooney, he hasn’t come out unscathed.
London Stadium’s unusually large playing surface hasn’t helped the defensive side of Noble’s game, and add to that the equally poor form suffered by many of his colleagues, and a picture begins to paint itself.
But Noble’s downturn in quality this term runs deeper than outside forces. The tired adage that a player’s “legs have gone” over the summer isn’t enough to explain his dismal campaign so far alone – but as with most clichés, the truth isn’t usually very far behind.
Last season, Noble averaged 2.8 tackles and 2.2 interceptions per game. Eleven matches into this season and his defensive contribution has almost halved – with the central midfielder averaging exactly 2 tackles a game and 1.2 interceptions.
Add to that the fact that Noble completed 1.9 successful dribbles per game last year – this term it’s 1.1. As for blocks, they too have decreased significantly on average.
What does it all mean? The bigger pitch has without a doubt had an effect, but Noble’s away performances have set similar standards.
The poor form of his teammates may also be playing a part, but it seems too simple a diagnosis.
Noble is West Ham’s lynchpin. When he has a bad game, more often than not, the team does too. Opposing managers know this full well, and game after game this season their sides have pressed Noble further and further towards his own goal – to the detriment of his performances.
But when Noble doesn’t play at all – think back to the pathetic home display against Astra Giurgiu in August for example – things fall apart on an altogether worse scale. That is precisely why West Ham must learn to rely less on their captain. It’s not about phasing Mark Noble out of the side, it’s about making West Ham a more unpredictable side to the opposition.
But we have to be careful when we talk about the future of a player like Mark Noble. You’re not just talking about a footballer. You’re talking about an identity.
You’re talking about a local lad who has been a mainstay at the club through thick and thin in recent years – through relegations, takeovers and merry-go-rounds in the dressing room – and now the most historic move in our history.
It isn’t about replacing Mark Noble. You can’t replace Mark Noble. He still has a pivotal role to play in the workings of the team going forward, but his role must evolve.
It is quite possible that Mark Noble just isn’t a 38-game-a-season man anymore. That isn’t a crime. Despite featuring far less in his final season at Liverpool, Steven Gerrard was still pivotal in the vital moments he was called upon to help the team.
The problem with Gerrard was ego. There was only room for one of either Brendan Rodgers or Steven Gerrard after the latter began to take a backseat.
Ego isn’t an issue with Mark Noble. He has consistently kept his head down through the most tumultuous period in the club’s history, and is said to get on well with Slaven Bilić and the rest of the squad.
More than anything, Mark Noble looks like he needs a rest. But given his doggish, devoted attitude – one we have all come to love him for – I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
It isn’t fair on Noble, and it isn’t fair on the fans. West Ham United have become all too predictable – and it shows.