After taking in West Ham’s 3-1 defeat of Southampton on Saturday, their fourth consecutive victory, and a match in which they allowed their first goal in five games, it struck me as the time to praise Sam Allardyce. Since they occupied the second relegation position five matches ago, Allardyce has persuaded the Hammers to draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and then win the next four matches, three of them without Andy Carroll. They have quietly leapt from 18thto 10th, and are now 7 points from the drop zone. It is a remarkable turnaround, and one must think that the credit for this storming improvement is due to Big Sam. While most teams striving to avoid the drop tend to slowly and surely grind out results, gaining momentum bit by bit, willing themselves over the line at the last, Allardyce, after finding himself under the cosh (the only manager in the bottom five not to have been replaced at one point) has reversed the fortunes of his team nearly instantly. As soon as the pressure was on, he, and they, delivered with gusto. The way Allardyce bellows himself silly from the touchline, his face ruddy and contorted to the point of resembling a particularly knobbly capsicum, you get the impression that he doesn’t mind having his back to the wall, that he relishes exerting the strength and aggression that’s needed for a scrap. He has never been relegated as a manager.
The way that Allardyce set his team up to play Southampton, to concede 70% of the possession, to allow 25 goal attempts and 11 corners, is typically his own brand. He has received a lot of criticism over the years, not least a few weeks ago, for the way he sends his teams out to play. Even now, with safety now much more clearly in sight, I know that many West Ham fans would be happy to be rid of him regardless. Although usually reliable, his style can only take you so far. But I also think he ought to be commended for it, in these tight circumstances. The ‘Long Ball’ style of play is scorned for its apparent cynicism, its lack of regard for the playing of the game. As the Saints supporters booed every hoof out from the back on Saturday, they were thinking to themselves “They haven’t even got the courage to play against us, to compete on the ground. All they can do is bloot it away and hope. Cowards.” But I’d contest that courage is exactly what’s needed for such an approach. Think about what West Ham are, what they currently possess under Allardyce. To be certain it’s Allardyce’s own doing; he has designed the team to play this way, and so any shortcomings that result should be laid at his feet. But, such as it is, West Ham cannot hope, not in a million years, to compete with Southampton by trying to beat them at their own game. They would be torn apart because they lack the required poise on the ball, and the knowledge of what movement is needed to accommodate the passing. Their centre halves are too slow, their wingers too orthodox, and their strikers too technically unskilled. So Allardyce, when facing such opposition, must find a way to compete. And the way forward resides in his confidence that he has in his defence.
West Ham’s defence, as viewed by 13 teams this season.
Big Sam’s defence have kept 13 clean sheets in the league this season, as many as Bayern Munich’s defence have kept in the Bundesliga. This is in spite of the fact that at one point in the season he was forced to play two fullbacks as centre halves against West Brom. Make no mistake, West Ham have been plagued by injuries this term, and not just Andy Carroll. Their entire first choice defence was out, and only now is it beginning to be reassembled. Still, in the face of such adversity, they rallied and have shut out more teams than anyone else. Southampton did have 25 shots yesterday, but only 5 were on target, and I can’t remember Adrian needing to trouble himself too much with any of those. Imagine the bravery it takes for a defender to head out onto the pitch at home, knowing that you will spend two thirds of the game without the ball. West Ham have had around 40% possession on average this season, sometimes much less. That means that there needs to be defensive heroes every week. James Collins has blocked more shots per game than anyone else in the league. Adrian has cemented his place over early season starter Jussi Jaaskelainen, winning vital points on his own with blinding performances against Norwich and Chelsea. Mark Noble runs himself into the ground every weekend. Downing and Jarvis track back diligently every match. Such tenacity has come at a cost; the second most yellow and red cards in the league. But it is a true testament to Allardyce that West Ham has defended this way. The way Allardyce wants to play requires this level of defensive solidity and he has achieved it with this far from ever-present bunch.
Hush now , darling. My name’s Sam and I’m here to keep you safe from relegation.
I’ll take this moment to debunk some Allardyce myths too. According to Whoscored.com, West Ham don’t play the most long balls per game, Southampton do, equal with Aston Villa on 70 (admittedly West Ham are right there behind them on 67). West Ham are 11th in fouls committed per game, contrary to the thuggy reputation that Allardyce’s teams have seemed to acquire. West Ham don’t score all their goals from set pieces either, only 5 this term, a number dwarfed by Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Southampton, who all have 12 or more. West Ham are a team that rely on stoic defending, on hustle over ingenuity in midfield and on quality orthodox wing play on the break. That is exactly how they beat Southampton.
But these…these statistics, they… don’t make any…
Speaking personally, I think that West Ham and their fans shouldn’t be content with Allardyce for too much longer. Moving into the Olympic Stadium in two years will be a huge step, and flirting with relegation, as can be the Allardyce way, will not suit. But I also can see that there are many worse options than Big Sam and many teams worse than his West Ham. A lot of people are content to lazily gobble up the sneering assumptions about Allardyce’s teams; I am not one of them, and not just because I happen to support his current one. It’s very easy to deride Allardyce, to tut-tut his “19th century” methods (has Jose Mourinho any knowledge of 19th century tactics? No, is the answer) and to jeeringly guffaw with pointed fingers when he asserts his professional worth, sometimes hyperbolically. But people shouldn’t be congratulated for doing something easy. The task that Big Sam was facing five games ago was far from easy. Yet, so far, he’s easily shouldered the weight of it.
Martin Jol can barely see Big Sam’s light shining bright.