In March 2013, Stoke City staged their home fixture against West Ham United. Most enthusiastic perusers who had scanned that weekend’s match ups would have marked this one down as an emphatic “must-avoid”. Entrenched as they were in the deepest, most mind-numbing depths of their respective periods of long-ball direness, Tony Pulis’s Potters and Sam Allardyce’s Hammers were undoubtedly the least entertaining teams in the Premier League, defending deeply, and transitioning the ball via lofted passes out of defence. Yawn. Playing this way, both teams made it their business to scrape through many-a tedious 1-0 win, which, as it turned, was the score in the 2013 version of this fixture, when West Ham’s Jack Collison scored the only goal of the match. During that time, as West Ham fans pondered whether or not to celebrate the victory or scratch their own eyes out, and Stoke City contemplated sacking Tony Pulis (which they would 2 months later), if someone had suggested that just a year and a half later this fixture would be one that a neutral might actually look forward to, they’d have found themselves being pummelled with bitter, spitting laughter.
But, incredibly, they’d have been right. In the time since that soporific 2013 match, both West Ham and Stoke City have become very much a pair of Premier League entertainers. Stoke, having hired Mark Hughes, who oversaw a rapid revamping of playing style, quickly shook off their long-ball label, despite the continued employ of Peter Crouch. West Ham soldiered on with theirs for the next season, one that finished with Allardyce teetering on the blustery bluff of redundancy. The prospect of potentially seeing West Ham take up residence in the Olympic Stadium without him was evidently too much for Big Sam to bear, and he has initiated a remarkable U-turn at Upton Park. Not only have West Ham been playing a fresh, exciting brand of football, they sit just a point below Manchester City on the table, in fourth. Though many commentators have pointed to Allardyce’s Fulham team in the later stages of his time there, where he sent out Jay-Jay Okocha et al to dazzle and delight, it’s safe to say that almost no one expected this West Ham team to change their stripes quite so quickly, or so effectively.
Thus, this weekend’s match holds the promise of a captivating afternoon. Stoke have been poor in the first quarter of the season, showing only brief, staccato flashes of quality, in the wins against Manchester City and Swansea. What might have been a pair of eye-catching summer recruits, in Bojan and Victor Moses, have so far failed to excel consistently. Peter Crouch still has still managed to be flailingly effective, scoring two goals so far. Marko Arnautovic has been disappointing, after finishing last season so well. The Austrian can be a bullying, powerful driving force, but has wafted disinterestedly around the pitch during his 6 appearances. He has lost his place to Victor Moses, who was ensconced in controversy after his questionable collapse to win a late penalty gave Stoke the win against Swansea. Having trod a peculiar career path, the Nigerian is unquestionably talented but can also be infuriatingly patchy. He looks nearly unplayable at his best, swerving around defenders at top speed like a souped-up go-kart might around traffic cones. Chelsea and Liverpool saw Moses as an asset worth having, but his subsequent involvement after signing was minimal at both clubs. There is no demonstrable reason why he can’t be crucial for Stoke, and up against a centre back as uncomfortable with pace as James Collins, Moses might enjoy himself on Saturday.
For West Ham, it’s simply a matter of maintaining their current form. They have been brilliant going forward, and the front unit of Downing, Sakho Amalfitano and Valencia has gelled instantly, and has been swashbuckling around the league offering genuine pace and intricate passing. Downing has played the most key passes in the league, according to Squawka, ahead of Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva. He’s created 26 chances so far this season, and it’s because he has those two missiles armed and ready to fire, Sakho and Valencia, at his sides. Their willingness to chase, their skill, and their strength in the air has given West Ham two deadly sabres up front. Aaron Cresswell and Carl Jenkinson have flourished with them to aim at, and Cresswell’s supreme crossing ability in particular has given Allardyce’s side some valuable width. Alex Song has quickly become essential to the balance of the midfield, and Mark Noble has grown in stature alongside the calming atmosphere the former Barcelona man has created. The defence has suffered slightly because of the new expansive style, conceding far more goals than last season, but the heroic stand they staged last week against a desperate Manchester City showed that they still have the required mettle to shut out teams frantically groping for an equaliser. Ahead of the Stoke match, Allardyce has called for his team to remain grounded.
“The big danger for us at Stoke is the hype surrounding us beating Manchester City cannot have a negative effect on us and we don’t go out and produce the same level again – otherwise Stoke will beat us,” Allardyce said. “Stoke and Mark Hughes will be looking forward to us coming and thinking: ‘Let’s put these lot to task and see if they can cope after that big result.’”
This is wise of Allardyce. West Ham are soaring, but the momentum they’ve worked hard to generate can be lost in an instant. Taking nothing for granted is the mantra now, and Allardyce is keen to drive that message home. Daydreams of European qualification can be left to the fans, the task for his team is to focus on dispatching Stoke with as much vigour as they did Manchester City.
Who, in March last year, would have foreseen that we’d be looking forward to this match with such ardour? It’s been a transition of startling starkness for both clubs, and the league is wholly better for the change.