Jekyll or Hyde for the Hammers

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West Ham were convincingly beaten by Southampton on Saturday, despite going 1-0 up through Mark Noble’s deflected opening strike. Onlookers may have been unsure as to how much possession this new Saints side would demand, and how much the new, attackingly-minded West Ham side would be happy to secede, but these questions were answered quickly. Southampton hogged the ball, passing cleanly and confidently from front to back, the crux of their work overseen by their midfield pairing of Morgan Schneiderlin and the increasingly impressive James Ward-Prowse. West Ham, to the dismay of the home fans, seemed immediately content to be the willing chasers, unconcerned with actually controlling the game themselves.

When Fabian Delph and Jack Colback were called up to the national squad a few days ago, a lot of West Ham fans, in the manner of a proud, slightly strained stage mother, harped on about the continued neglect of Mark Noble from England selection. Even though he scored here, the alleged hallmarks of Noble’s game were not on display against Southampton; he gave the ball away numerous times, was utterly absent from his defensive area of the pitch in the lead up to Southampton’s third goal, and generally looked unable to cope with his opposite numbers. What Noble lacks as a midfield playmaker (the ability to get around a man, any pace or strength of note, the full range of passing) he generally makes up for with dogged enthusiasm. But his hustle and bustle was carried out in vain here, bypassed by the slick ball movement of Ronald Koeman’s team. He is beloved at the club, a local lad, but the new signing Alex Song, who was introduced to the crowd before the match, will be lining up in Noble’s place if performances like this continue. He will not have changed Roy Hodgson’s mind either.

Another performance that will concern Allardyce was the stunningly deflated turn from Mauro Zarate. After his excellence last week against Crystal Palace, here the Argentinian forward was initially energetic, then ineffective, frustrated, and eventually listless, and was substituted for Ravel Morrison on the hour. His only contribution was to win the ball back in the Saints half, an intervention that led to Noble’s goal. But Zarate isn’t in the team for his defensive assets, and his joyless afternoon was largely down to less than stellar distribution from midfield. Cheikou Kouyate, another new signing, was very impressive in the tackle and when surging forward himself, but he and Noble were not adequate providers of the ball for Zarate. His showing was an utter contrast to last week’s vivacious shift against Palace.

But perhaps most astounding, most uncharacteristic of an Allardyce team (at least the one from last season) was the hapless way they defended Southampton’s set pieces. A point of immense pride for Allardyce last season was the stoic way West Ham defended, in all aspects of the game. The 14 clean sheets his team kept was a huge reason they stayed up last year, and all last season Winston Reid, James Tomkins and James Collins were largely disciplined, organised and strong in the air. Tomkins and Reid were in disarray at every set piece on Saturday, and two of Southampton’s goals were purely down to non-existent marking and reckless lapses in concentration. The first goal was from a free kick, taken from the left, clipped in and nodded on towards the back post. It was a common sequence for which all defences should be prepared. But, somehow, Morgan Schneiderlin was left completely alone at the far post, and had time to square up a thundering first attempt, which was blocked desperately by Joey O’Brien. The rebound fell back at the feet of the Saints’ wantaway Frenchman, and he calmly curled the ball inside the far post. It was an egregious error that was punished, and Southampton were deservedly level just before half time. There were more errors to come.

In the second half, West Ham went behind in the most embarrassing of circumstances. Allardyce had no doubt tried to energise his players at the break, such was the meekness with which they ended first half, but it was Southampton who instantly took control again. From a corner, Scheiderlin ballooned an open chance to take the lead, and, a few minutes later, shoddy marking at a free kick was almost punished again when a marginal offside call came to the Hammers’ rescue, when an unmarked Graziano Pelle headed the ball into the net. The same mistake was being made over and over again, and West Ham were seriously riding their luck, ignoring the lesson that was there to be learnt. It wouldn’t last and, inevitably, it was from a corner that the Saints made it 2-1. The corner had been conceded (in retrospect rather contentiously, as it looked like Dusan Tadic had gotten the last touch). West Ham’s defence was slowly, sluggishly jogging back into position, almost like they were waiting to be told what to do and who to mark. Southampton took full advantage of their laziness, taking the corner short, and under no pressure, crossing in quickly for Schneiderlin volley home at the near post. The West Ham players looked around at each other, dumbfounded. It had happened so swiftly, even the telecast had missed most of it by showing a replay. Maybe it was the fatigue that had crept in after an hour of near-constant defending that was to blame for their negligence, although, in truth, such poor marking, repeatedly committed, cannot be excused at this level. Southampton’s third goal merely added the shine their performance deserved.

The West Ham fans that were exiting the stadium before the final whistle were probably suffering from whiplash. The defensive solidity from last season was gone, the attacking play from the previous match was gone, and a season of perilous ups and downs beckons. Every promising aspect from the Crystal Palace win, from the player’s individual performances, to the team’s overall confidence, was noticeably absent this week. Allardyce had spoken before the match of the need for consistency, specifically with regards to his team’s finishing. He’ll be fretting over how he’s to get every aspect of the team more consistent for next week’s game against Hull, because such Jekyll and Hyde form will not assist West Ham if they’re to have a successful campaign.

Here are the goals

Mark Noble’s opener.

Scheinderlin’s first.

Schneiderlin’s second.

Southampton’s third.

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