West Ham’s highly successful summer transfer business has been a heralded topic lately. Sam Allardyce brought in 9 players, nearly all of whom have flourished immediately under his stewardship. Of course, after scoring a goal in each of his first 6 starts, Diafra Sakho has rightfully snatched most of the attention. But standing in the shadow of Sakho, quietly and assuredly playing in a very effective manner, is Aaron Cresswell, the 24 year old left back who was signed from Championship club Ipswich for £4 million. He has capably filled the dearth of quality that West Ham had at the left back position, and has quickly become the West Ham’s second most prominent chance creator, fashioning 16 chances this season so far. Only the resplendent Stewart Downing stands above Cresswell for the Hammers in this regard, with 36 chances created (as well as more key passes than any other player in the league).
Stepping up from the second tier isn’t easy, but Cresswell has made it seem so. Last season, West Ham had George McCartney and Pablo Armero as their left back options. McCartney was usually hampered by some sort of injury, and Armero, on loan from Napoli, was not a permanent option. Matty Taylor could also play there, as could utility-man extraordinaire Joey O’Brien, but all of these players, for different reasons, weren’t ideal mainstays. For a team with a heavy focus on creating chances from wider areas, the full backs were key positions and to have such uncertainty (or a simple lack of quality) at left back was a damaging weakness for West Ham. With McCartney, Armero and Taylor leaving in the summer, filling the position was a point of emphasis for Allardyce, and he acted quickly, making Cresswell his third signing of the off-season.
Although Cresswell was a well known prospect at Ipswich, not many would have assumed that he would embrace the Premier League quite as lovingly as he has. Allardyce, however, was convinced of Cresswell’s ability as soon as he signed him.
“He is 24-years-old and there has been a very good, steady development over those years. He has over 200 games in the bag, after moving from League One to the Championship. He was in the PFA Team of the Year last season, so all of the players he played against saw him as the best left-back in the Championship.” Allardyce told West Ham TV. “Of course, the price was right, which was the biggest factor in our transfer dealings this season – if the player is right and the price is right, we do the deal. The biggest stumbling block is the size of the fees that are being asked for today … This one was a very, very good signing indeed, not just for right now but also for the future.”
Andy Carroll has been convalescing recently on the sidelines, and while he was there he’s probablybeen daydreaming about the kind of service he’ll receive from his left back. Cresswell seems to have perfected the technique required to swoop in a cross from the flank, either from deeper areas or more advanced positions. The cross that set up Diafra Sakho for West Ham’s second against Burnley was an example of this type of dipping, fizzing ball, a delivery so pacey and accurate that Sakho’s header was virtually a gimme. Cresswell has made a habit of swinging in 4 or 5 such crosses a match, and has assisted 2 goals this season, second in the league for a defender (only Leighton Baines has more). Squawka has also noted Cresswell’s 14 key passes, again second in the league for a defender.
Defensively, he’s been perfectly sufficient, even though his two errors this season both led to goals. He seems to be fairly disciplined for a largely attacking left back, and rarely gets caught badly out of position. But, really, it’s his attacking that’s made the most noticeable difference. For West Ham to play the more possession-based style that they have adopted this season, where pressure is exerted in the middle and final thirds of the pitch, having additional players to pass to in those areas is a must. This means that attacking full backs like Cresswell provide essential passing options to link up with out wide. Like Marcelo does at Real Madrid, like Kolarov and Zabaleta do at Manchester City, Cresswell has ensured his team mates don’t get outnumbered and swamped when prowling the area outside the opposition box. His link up play with Alex Song and Stewart Downing actively pulls the opposition shape out of line, dragging men out to him, which creates space in the middle for Downing, Valencia and Sakho to exploit. This, coupled with his deadly crossing, has helped West Ham score 10 more goals than they had managed at this point last season. Additionally, his pace and phenomenal fitness has made West Ham’s counter attacks even more lethal, at times leading the break, or arriving later as a secondary attacker and crossing accurately for the strikers. It’s become essential because, with Downing now more centrally based, and Allardyce’s midfield now resembling a diamond formation, width can only be provided by the full backs.
Sam Allardyce made sure to praise Cresswell’s impact after that win over Burnley; “Our two centre-forwards that we bought paid massive dividends with the quality of the headers off brilliant crosses, and that, in the end, put Burnley to bed.” As for Cresswell, it was all in a day’s work, telling West Ham TV;
“It was a good ball and it was a good header. Even the same with Jenks [Carl Jenkinson]. Jenks put in a great ball for Enner [Valencia] and Enner scored it. That’s the modern day full-back and for both teams on Saturday, both full-backs put a lot of balls in the box. It’s something we work on in training with the gaffer and Macca [Neil McDonald]. So if you keep putting good balls in the box, nine times out of ten you should score one.”
Though West Ham’s ascension has been earned through some brilliant team performances, there have been some outstanding individuals to thank as well, and Cresswell is certainly one of them. Allardyce is right to praise his new left-sided weapon, and if Cresswell keeps those laser-guided crosses hissing in every week, not only will the goals keep flowing for West Ham, but the young Englishman might just be re-branded as Aaron “Cross-well”.