It’s mid-November and West Ham sit comfortably in fourth position in the Premier League table.
Sam Allardyce has delivered a new brand of football that a lot of teams, including the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City, have found difficult to deal with. The team are now on a run of five games unbeaten in the league, with their last loss coming at Old Trafford in an unfortunate 2-1 defeat. The start made by the team has certainly been an admirable one and there are little signs of the team slipping up any time soon. However, if there ever was a potential banana skin, you can always look to the rather daunting winter schedule that will await every Premier League team in December.
The manager has already stated that he will learn a lot about his players when the congested fixture list really starts to take shape in December. All eyes will be on the new signings and how they cope. A lot of the focus will be on how Allardyce accommodates the strikers. Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia will not start every game in the winter period; it would be tough on a regular Premier League performer let alone two new signings who are trying to settle into the pace of the Premier League. A big advantage for the manager is the return of Andy Carroll who, if he carries the same sort of threat he had against Villa in his three minute cameo, will be a huge threat against tired defences in December. Also, if he maintains a good level of fitness, he should start hitting top form around Christmas time so the big man could become a vital player for us very soon.
As well as balancing the squad, there is the small matter of the actual fixtures West Ham will be playing. From the 29th November to the 7th December, West Ham will have completed three league games (Everton away, Newcastle at home and WBA away). The team have actually performed very well on the road this season but Goodison Park is never an easy place to go. If West Ham come away with four points from these fixtures, that would be very encouraging, especially when you consider the challenge of the next few fixtures coming up. From the 20th December to the 1st January, West Ham will have completed a gruelling 4 league games (Leicester at home, Chelsea away, Arsenal at home and WBA at home).
The biggest stumbling block is obviously the two fixtures against Chelsea and Arsenal. Does Sam try and surprise Chelsea at Stamford Bridge or does he choose damage limitation so that the squad is fresh for the visit of Arsenal just two days later? Arsenal have looked very vulnerable when teams have looked to counter attack them this season. Let’s not forget that their defence is very short in numbers and injuries stack up when games are being played so close together. A fresh Sakho and Valencia against a tired, weakened Arsenal defence could lead to a lot of goals. Andy Carroll actually performed really well against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season and was unlucky not to score so hopefully he can cause a few problems again on Boxing Day.
In terms of an attacking sense, West Ham should be ok. Options like Zarate, Cole, Carroll, Sakho and Valencia should mean that the team copes well in an attacking sense. I also feel like there is more to come from Mauro Zarate. Despite a number of reports linking him to Italian side Torino in January, he still adds a different dimension to the team, similar to the brilliant job Bojan Krkic is doing for Stoke at the moment. Hopefully he will respond from his niggling knee injury well and that West Ham fans will see him perform in the winter period, rather than offloading another talented attacking midfielder in the transfer window (Diamanti springs to mind).
Our biggest issue lies in defence. Although the back four is playing well at the moment, our central defenders do not have a brilliant fitness record. Of course, Cheikou Kouayte can slot in to that position but his energy will be needed against tired teams in December. If the three centre backs can stay fit, it would be fantastic. The same applies to the two attacking full backs, Aaron Cresswell and Carl Jenkinson. Cresswell actually has a brilliant fitness record but the same can’t be said about Jenkinson. Having said that, he has a few games under his belt now so hopefully he will continue to stay injury free. The potential replacements of Guy Demel and Joey O’Brien are not disastrous but they won’t offer the same quality that the two English full-backs have brought to the club this season.
The midfield area should be the least of Allardyce’s concerns as the squad looks very prepared in that area. Disregarding the performance against Stoke City, Morgan Amalfitano has shown that he is a capable performer in the central midfield position as he will provide valuable cover. Kevin Nolan always carries a goal scoring threat too and his Premier League experience will be vital in the winter break. The return of Matt Jarvis is also welcoming as he adds a lot of pace and good crossing ability, something our forwards should thrive on.
Overall, West Ham look well prepared for the influx of fixtures that they are going to be faced with in December. Come January, it would be nice to see West Ham maintaining a position in the top seven, something that should be maintainable considering the brilliant start so far. However, West Ham rarely perform well at Christmas but this is usually down to the rather bare numbers that make up the squad. Hopefully, the greater depth and quality of the squad will pay dividends in the abundance of fixtures that make up this busy period.