A Bad Start

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Things are tense at Upton Park. Andy Carroll is injured, again. The pre-season trip to New Zealand resulted in two embarrassing losses to A-League opposition. The manager is obviously uncomfortable working to the new, attacking brief set by the owners, who themselves haven’t helped matters by accidentally ‘favouriting’ tweets calling for Allardyce’s removal. Ravel Morrison, unwanted by Allardyce (why that would be is anyone’s guess [EDIT: Oh, that’s why.]) but valued by the owners, has spent much of the pre-season unsure of his future at the club. A promising influx of players has given reason for early optimism, but the stodgy performances so far have tempered the high hopes.

There’s only a couple of seasons until the big move away from the Boleyn Ground. David Gold and David Sullivan are playing a risky game by asking Allardyce to play more attractive football. Think about why Allardyce was hired in the first place; firstly, to achieve promotion, and then to keep the Hammers in the Premier League until the Olympic Stadium was ready for occupancy. He has led West Ham to a 10th and 13th place finish the last two seasons, under some difficult circumstances. Injuries have plagued various sections of the team, most notably the defence and attack, for the last two seasons, but Allardyce has continually found a way to fight through it. He has delivered everything the management expected, including the often negative tactics. Is it a wise decision to ask him to drastically change his approach, just two seasons before one of the biggest upheavals in the club’s history, one that relies on Premier League status to succeed? We’ll see in the season proper, but the early signs aren’t good.

Pre-season friendlies should never be too deeply read into, and the consecutive losses that the Hammers suffered against the Wellington Phoenix and Sydney FC, while embarrassing, are not the first signs of the end of days. West Ham found themselves in an unfamiliar position; they were given the vast majority of possession by both A-League clubs, a situation they will be very unlikely to face in the Premier League. With the onus fully upon them to break down the opposition defences, the Hammers found life difficult. In the match against Wellington, Allardyce’s decision to play Mohamed Diame as a winger hardly assisted in the task. The Senegalese midfielder is not comfortable out wide, his ability to swerve with vigour around a challenger isn’t suited to areas pushed up against the touchline. His crossing in this role is also often less than considered. When he was moved to the centre of midfield later in the game against the Phoenix, he instantly looked more effective. He can wrong-foot, and hold off most would-be tacklers when he has space either side of him and his penchant for blasting in an ambitious strike is much less wasteful a tendency in the middle.

Stewart Downing was also responsible for the Hammers’ better second half showing against the Wellington team. He came on as a substitute and was a savvy threat cutting in from the right. If he can link up creatively with the new signing Zarate (who was also very good against the Phoenix, scoring a crisp goal) then the new attacking mindset will be in good hands. On the other hand, Matt Jarvis, the other traditional winger in the squad, seems more and more like the very personification of “quantity over quality”. Every time he takes on his defender out wide, he beats him, only to deliver the most innocuous and inconsequential of crosses. When he signed Jarvis, Allardyce touted the fact that the former Wolves man had delivered the most crosses in the Premier League the season before. One assumes that the comment was supposed to be evidence of Jarvis’s effectiveness. Jarvis’s assist-less first season for the Hammers told a more telling tale. All of this might be why West Ham have been linked with very effective France winger Matthieu Valbuena.

There is some uncertainty in the defence as well, with Winston Reid yet to commit to a contract extension with the Hammers. One of West Ham’s most consistent performers, and Hammer of the Year two seasons ago, the Kiwi centre back is a vital member of Allardyce’s squad. Rarely making costly errors and always excelling in the tackle and in the air, Reid has attracted covetous looks from a number of other clubs in the market for a centre back with Premier League experience. As Southampton’s exodus continues, their most recent departure, Dejan Lovren, has left a hole in their defence. With plenty of money now that all their best players have been sold, Allardyce ought to be wary of the Saints catching the New Zealand international’s eye. Meanwhile, a weakness at right back has been covered by the loan signing of Carl Jenkinson from Arsenal, Allardyce revealed recently. With Guy Demel picking up an injury in New Zealand, and jack-of-all-trades Joey O’Brien as the main understudy, strengthening depth at this position was vital.

But the most glaring of issues is Andy Carroll’s continued struggle with injury, an issue that has been written about about on this blog, and others, ad nauseum. For Allardyce, it’s now less a matter of getting Carroll healthy and more one of hoping for the best, while securing adequate replacement strikers. He has done this, with Enner Valencia’s signing confirmed yesterday. Whether or not the Ecuadorian will succeed in the Premier League is another question, having only played at at senior level in Ecuador and Mexico. But, along with Zarate and the ever-present Carlton Cole, at least a full-blown injury crisis up front is unlikely to happen again next season.

Allardyce’s comments after the Phoenix loss were worryingly sullen.

“The football was not good enough to get results, but we’re experimenting and working on more open attacking play and it hasn’t worked well from a defensive point of view … We just lost the defensive resilience that we had last season with 14 clean sheets,” he said. “Today we got caught on the break twice in the first half – because we’re trying to open play more; we’ve left too many spaces.”

Sam Allardyce is a manager not shy of defending himself and the effectiveness of his methods. So, with his job apparently on the line, he has been forced to change his ways, and the immediate results are bad. Yes, the club have backed him financially during this transition, but if results don’t improve, the new signings flounder, and Allardyce begins to sulk, it will be foolish to assume that West Ham will be a Premier League club when they leave Upton Park.

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