It’s only natural for those jaded and rubicund devotees to think they know better. They’re the ones who shell out a small fortune every weekend. They’re the ones who’ve been to every home game since 1962, they’re the ones with the modest collection of vintage match day programs, and they’re the ones with the indoctrinated children. They have the faded club crest tattoo and they have the worn out scarf which has seen the decades of ups and downs along with them. They know better, and they makes sure that their boos come with a garnish of persuasive insight. Everyone in the pub agrees; “I could do a better job managing my team than he does”.
Largely, these people are wrong. They wouldn’t do a better job managing their team, they ought not to be given a chance, and ergo, it is they, not the employed professional who must endure the boos, who rant and rave in the stands, then the pub, and then go home and fume themselves to sleep. We don’t have the heart to tell them this, of course, and risk redirecting the ire onto ourselves. No, a simple nod of the head and a shrug of camaraderie is the modus operandi here.
But this is not to say that there aren’t exceptions, or at least what appear to be exceptions. By this I mean there are some circumstances where a certain decision made by a football manager is so bafflingly counter-productive, so obviously the wrong option, that the incensed raving of the die-hard in the seat behind you actually seems now to hold water. These moments are rare, to be sure, but they exist. And very rarely, they are demonstrated to maximum effect in a single football match.
West Ham have been slowly regressing back to the ineffective and unattractive tactics of last season. It hasn’t been a full blown avatism quite yet, and Sam Allardyce’s team remain unbeaten in 2015, but the return of Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll – and more pertinently, the return of both of them to the starting lineup – has given the claret and blue faithful considerable cause for concern. And actually, Carroll isn’t really the problem; it’s Nolan, the captain and Allardyce favourite, who’s causing the thrust of the issue. Allardyce apparently feels utterly compelled to accommodate Nolan, seems unspeakably seduced by his talents as a footballer and leader.
But what exactly are Nolan’s virtues on the pitch? At his most potent, he is an advanced midfielder with an intuitive knack for goal poaching. His finishing can be pin-point, with the added bonus of having a gift for dispatching chances with a stunningly unexpected acrobatic manoeuvre. Additionally, he also… well, that’s about it, unless you count barking at the referee. He works well with a powerful target man like Carroll, but if Nolan isn’t scoring, he isn’t really an asset. His passing is, at best, adequate. His contributions defensively are negligible. He possesses no athletic weapons, and when he does force himself to run at full speed, he closely resembles a burly dispomaniac chasing the last bus after an evening at the Boleyn Tavern.
And the part of the pitch that Nolan must operate in is the very same part that David Silva, and Cesc Fabregas, and indeed, Stewart Downing also excel in. The most damaging knock-on effect of putting Nolan in the starting line up really is the displacement of Downing, who was revelatory in his central, No. 10 role early in the season. Nolan was injured during this lovely period, and the tactical restructuring Allardyce performed then is now looking much more like an unwillingly forced decision, rather than a piece of considered managerial brilliance. Since Nolan’s return, the manager has slipped back into bad habits; Nolan has started 8 of the last 11 matches for West Ham, and has scored in exactly 1 of them, his only goal so far this season. He has not been effective, and the team suffers when he is included.
The match against Hull City on Sunday displayed the problem beautifully. To put it bluntly, West Ham’s first half was absolutely abysmal, and they were lucky in the extreme not to concede on multiple occasions. Hull started exactly as Steve Bruce would have hoped they would, like a team in dire relegation trouble, and Sone Aluko was embarrassing the West Ham defence at will, particularly James Tomkins. James Collins was called upon multiple times to save his side’s blushes with a host of last ditch tackles and miraculous blocks. Down the other end for the Hammers, the entire half was a lesson in stodginess and heaving inefficiency. One can see from the West Ham’s passing map that their completed passes (that weren’t long balls) were performed largely in the deep midfield and down the flanks. No passes were completed inside Hull City’s box, and Nolan himself completed only 7 passes in the entire first half. This is the result when two conservative midfielders like Alex Song and Mark Noble are paired with Nolan. They sit deep, and because Nolan offers no movement ahead of them, passes are funnelled out to the neutered Valencia and Downing on the wings, two players who excel when dispatched in more central areas (like the ‘red zone’, highlighted below). Neither Song or Noble run with the ball especially well – they look first to thread balls through to onrushing team mates – and with Cheikhou Kouyate at the African Cup of Nations, any sense of attacking dynamism was almost non-existent in the midfield that lined up against Hull.
Stewart Downing, West Ham’s most creative player, was marginalised on the wing in the opening half. He attempted two take-ons in the first period, both of them in non-threatening areas. In the second half, after he’d been moved inward to form the tip of a midfield diamond, he attempted double that total, in much more promising, central positions. He also scored a fine goal, West Ham’s third, by surging through the middle onto Song’s exquisite through ball. It is no secret now; this is where Downing is at his best, with space in front and either side of him. Having Downing in this area also brings out the best in Song and Noble, and makes the midfield infinitely more fluid. His presence there stimulates Enner Valencia, and his interplay with Andy Carroll is so often a joy to see. The link between midfield and attack is no longer the static, one-track figure of Nolan; Downing is constantly moving, weaving in and out of the defensive line, searching for opportunities to make a killer pass, a useful run or a thunderous shot.
The make matters worse against Hull, Mark Noble was having a poor game, perhaps fatigued after the mid-week FA Cup marathon against Everton. He was replaced around the hour mark by Morgan Amalfitano, an astute, if belated, substitution from Allardyce. Amalfitano instantly greased the wheels in midfield with his ability to stride around would-be tacklers. His goal, West Ham’s second, came about because of a surging run he made through the middle off the ball, a run that Noble is always reluctant to make. Found perfectly by Valencia, Almalfitano finished with aplomb, chipping the keeper from a tight angle. His energy and willingness to rush forward was like a breath of fresh air, and made crystal clear the need for such a player in every West Ham midfield trio from now on. He or Kouyate must always be included over Nolan if Noble and Song are to make up the rest of the midfield.
The change in formation had an effect in other areas of the pitch as well. Look at how much more involved in the attack Aaron Cresswell was in the second half, now that Valencia was playing in less flank-centric role in front of him. His second half touches occurred much further up the pitch, where his devastating crossing ability can be fully utilised. He is the team’s second leading goal provider, and must be involved in attacking as much as possible. A diamond midfield is designed to actively involve the full backs in the attacking structure and West Ham’s full backs, particularly Cresswell, are some of the most productive in the league.
The change in formation and personnel completely revitalised West Ham, and even Nolan himself, who completed more than triple the amount of passes in the second half than he had in the first. He might even have snatched his 100th league goal in the 85th minute, but he struck the crossbar with Hull’s Allan MacGregor beaten. With Downing in the central attacking midfield role, and Nolan basically now a more reserved passenger in midfield, West Ham were a team transformed, and dominated the remainder of the match. The dearth of activity in the ‘red zone’ of the attacking third was suddenly filled with vivacious, threatening intent. They were worthy winners in the end.
All of this provokes the question; why wait until the second half to revert to a system so obviously and demonstrably more effective? As was said, West Ham should have been a goal or two down by half time. It was an almighty stupid decision for Allardyce to risk this before freshening things up, and teams who aren’t missing their two best strikers (like Hull City are) will be certain to punish West Ham if they start so poorly in the future. Infuriatingly, Allardyce said this in the post-match press conference:
“We weren’t functioning very well in that system, so at half time it really boiled down to me talking to the players about changing the way we played. We went back to a diamond, blocked midfield up better where I thought Hull were controlling, and started playing forward quicker on Stewart Downing, Enner Valencia and Andy Carroll”.
So, Allardyce seems perfectly aware of the limitations of the system they started the match with, the strengths of the formation he eventually reverted to, but yet he can’t seem to see that Nolan was the cause of the problems to begin with, and has been for some time. We’ll see whether he persists with Nolan playing behind Carroll in the games to come, but with Liverpool, Chelsea, Southampton, Tottenham and Manchester United making up 5 of their next 6 league opponents, a string of good performances is a must for the Hammers if any points are to be gathered from those fixtures. The loud man behind me is suggesting politely that Allardyce might consider dropping Nolan. Maybe he should listen.