Although having established this blog for the purpose of discussing the Hyundai A-League, I awoke this morning with the unrelenting desire to discuss a matter on the team I support in the English Premier League, West Ham United – more specifically, the need for them to part ways with current manager Sam Allardyce and to find a new direction with their football.
West Ham currently sit 14th on the EPL ladder, and barring a calamity of the last few rounds of the competition, will remain in top flight football next season. Job done right?
Having watched the West Ham team for a number of years, there is some merit to this sentiment. I was watching during the great escape of 2006-07 when Carlos Tevez scored on the final day of the premier league at Old Trafford to keep West Ham up, and I also had to see them relegated in 2010-11 – both highlighting the tenuous grip the Hammers have had on Premier-League football. Therefore I am happy to count my blessings in any season where such a risk as being relegated is negated earlier rather than later.
But surely this should not now be the aim of the West Ham team.
We all know that West Ham move into their new 54,000 seat stadium in time for the 2016-17 season. Just two short seasons away. We know this too well, as do the club management apparently.
For the entirety of this year, although more specifically in the last few months, I have had to watch my team playing to this script with mind-numbing discipline. Watching Big Sam play the one tactical card he knows how to wield, regardless of the quality of the opposition or of the position of the game. If Chelsea are criticised as parking the bus, then it is fair to equate the West Ham way, under Sam Allardyce, as engaging in a type of trench warfare – where the emphasis is on not losing ground, and the only attack comes from mortar strikes and other long-range weapons, safe from the opposition and ensuring no man is within arm’s reach of harm.
These last few weeks have reverted to a game in which either Tomkins, Noble, Demel, Adrian or McCartney (especially McCartney) will bang in a long floated through-ball in an attempt to have Carroll miraculously bring it down and beat the five or six opposition players crowded around him. Then, later in the game and sensing Carroll tiring (or more likely losing interest) Sam will chuck on Carlton Cole to do the same, side by side. Two big pillars up front to bomb it up to. I would point out at this point that West Ham have yet to score through this strategy.
Big Sam’s game has always had an element of this. It worked well in the Championship when he helped West Ham gain an instant return to the Premier League in 2010-11. And it helped to secure 10th position in 2012-13. I am grateful for what Sam has helped the club to achieve in his tenure as manager. However, I do not think I would be alone in now believing it is time for something different.
The clincher for me was in West Ham’s loss to Crystal Palace a fortnight ago. At home, facing a team both below the Hammers on the table and arguably with a slightly lower skill set, the Hammers had a great opportunity to get three points and put even greater pressure on for 10th position. Despite the goal against the run of play, West Ham were threatening with invasive goal-line crosses from Downing and Jarvis. It was managing to look extremely dangerous in spite of the West Ham back-lines continued attempts to bomb in lofted through balls from the back, and was giving Hammers supporters a semblance of the type of football they are looking for.
That was until the 70th minute, when Sam substituted Jarvis, West Ham’s best player that day, for Carlton Cole. The home fans knew immediately the negative implications of this move and booed Allardyce. The effect was immediate. Any cohesion and tactical prowess that was present in West Ham’s game flew out the window, in favour of a one dimensional and visually unappealing long-ball game. There would be no further genuine attempts at goal.
This fallback trick of Allardyce’s has been proven to be low-percentage play, and yet he persists with it as if it were his secret go-to play. As we have seen, all an opposition team needs to do is muscle up with the contest on Carroll and Cole, and get men around the ball. They win every time because the strikers are isolated from the midfielders (who often are back waiting for a short pass out from the backs that will not come, or they are the ones delivering the ball through). I almost feel bad for Andy and Carlton – they see that white ball rise up into the sky toward them, and as they prepare, they know they will have to someone outmuscle a defender well-drilled in this delivery, drop the ball on a 20 cent coin in front of them, and then beat anywhere from 1 to 4 men before a pass or shot opens up. AS one commentator saw fit to describe the phenomenon, “the ball is coming down with snow on it”.
Sam’s technique is the very antithesis of what West Ham supporters, and football supporters in general come to see. As he said himself, it is a results-driven approach, and the technique seems to be tolerated by the club and its supporters due to the large carrot of a new stadium and the new ball-game it will bring in two seasons time. The West Ham administration has chosen to tread water for the next few seasons until their bank balances can open up and they can really compete with the other EPL teams.
However I think this is a mis-guided effort. It places too little faith in the West Ham faithful and too great an emphasis on the ability of some additional cash to transform the fortunes of a football club (We are not talking about Sheik owner levels of additional funding here after all).
Since his inauguration as club manager, Hammers supporters have held a wary, begrudging view of Allardyce’s reign. We accepted it in Championship football because we knew it would bring Premier League football quickly, but I believe his management has survived two subsequent seasons because there has yet to be a real excuse to remove him. Sam assumes a fickle, hypocritical nature of Hammers fans in desiring fancy football but ultimately, deep down being driven by survival in the premier league. However I think he projects his own mentality upon them. As long as I have known supporters of the football club, I have only ever known their unrest to stem from unattractive football. We are happy to wear the physical and mental (and even spiritual) torture of facing relegation every year more so than watching our team play ugly football, even if it means the occasional fall into second-tier football.
This is not what we are getting from Big Sam. The desire to survive until the 2016-17 season has overwhelmed any other of the West Ham club. I think it would be a mistake to keep Allardyce, and to continue drubbing out survival seasons until then. So much of football, and life is built on momentum, and what type of momentum would that bring the club when they face their first game in that new season in the new stadium. Will we still have the manager capable only of the hyper-direct colour-less football? One that has seen four seasons of unimaginative football pass. How much of the new stadium will they expect to fill with such a recent history? How many new fans will they attract to come see genuine talents like Carroll and Maiga and Jarvis play uninspired football?
Rather than reducing this debate to the premise that Hammers can only play boring football and survive with Allardyce, or play attractive football and be relegated with another manager, we should look at this as an opportunity to look for managers out there can that bring both. After all, as today’s Guardian article on 2012-13 finances of EPL clubs shows, West Ham has a fairly healthy financial position and a relatively strong turnover. Quality management is possible, as is the potential to bring in exciting players that can get results.
Why limit ourselves to a situation of the mutually exclusive alternatives of Premier League success or entertaining football?