A team of mannequins were bussed into West Ham United’s training ground this week in a bid to restore confidence for the shot-shy Hammers. I’m not joking.
Fitting I suppose, when you consider how much of a dummy their manager has been in recent games.
It’s odd because Sam Allardyce is a clever man. A modernist thinker, a student of the game, this is a visionary who employed an extensive back room team of specialists years before most other managers had begun to contemplate the benefits.
Somebody I know is now part of that team, so I’m aware of how determined he is not to leave a single stone unturned in his pursuit of winning a football match. I’d go as far as to say that no one in English football is more meticulous than Big Sam.
So, why then, can’t he see what’s plainly staring him and everyone else at Upton Park in the face? Playing without a centre-forward is pure and utter madness for a side like West Ham.
It worked a treat at White Hart Lane in early October, granted. Yet looking back, that 4-6-0 master plan flourished on an afternoon when styles produced the perfect storm.
Allardyce knew that AVB’s notoriously high defensive line would cramp the space for his side to drop balls into the front man, he knew he didn’t have a speedy striker capable of exploiting the gaps behind, he knew he had plenty of willing midfield runners, he knew his boys were capable of soaking up Tottenham’s predictable attacks, and most importantly of all he knew his unexpected tactics were likely to confuse the hell out of Spurs. And they did.
Since that unforgettable triumph, after which Big Sam was lauded for being a ‘tactical genius’, the Hammers have scored twice in five games, collecting two points from a couple of tedious goalless draws. Goalscoring chances have been few and far between, and with players taking on unfamiliar roles and responsibilities within the system, the side has looked as lost as they have impotent.
Centre forward is very much a specialist position and for my money it’s the most important in the game.
Knowing the type of runs to make, having the ability to pull defenders out of position, holding the ball up for team-mates, acting as a pivot so that others can get forward, closing down the opposition with purpose, the list goes on. And it’s unfair of Allardyce to expect the likes of Kevin Nolan, Mo Diame and Ravel Morrison to perform those duties to anywhere near the same level as a player that has those attributes in-bred in their play.
As a player, the only time I can recall playing without a striker was for Southend United against Swansea City at the Vetch Field, when we finished with nine men. Whenever I looked up for somebody to pass to, they just weren’t there. It was disorientating.
It’s different for West Ham of course. In the absence of the injured Andy Carroll they’ve chosen to dispense with a striker, and with a full complement of players they’re seeking to mimic the success of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and others who’ve dabbled with the use of a ‘false nine’.
Without the surprise factor that worked at Tottenham, I’m afraid they just don’t have the players to pull it off on a consistent basis.
As good as the likes of Nolan, Diame, Morrison, Noble, J.Cole, Jarvis and Downing can be on their day, they aren’t a mesmeric midfield unit that will outclass opponents with the fluency of movement, razor sharp instincts and lethal finishing skills of their counterparts at the Nou Camp.
These are good solid footballers, who need a striker to play off. It really isn’t any more complicated than that.
In seven of their first 12 Premier League matches West Ham have failed to score. I’d argue that without the likes of Winston Reid and Jussi Jaaskelainen to stem the tide at the other end, they’d currently be marooned deep in the bottom three.
With winnable fixtures against Fulham and Crystal Palace to come this week, Sam Allardyce needs to fix things sharpish.
A club the size of West Ham should never fall off a cliff completely just because their first choice centre forward gets injured, but that’s what’s happened.
The 4-6-0 system doesn’t work for them, and morale throughout the side is ebbing away game by game.
In addition, stand-in striker Modigo Maiga’s confidence is shot, and heaven only knows how Carlton Cole’s self-belief is standing up. This is a man that’s been released, found no new employer, been taken back as a desperate measure, and then still barely used in spite of the desperate situation.
Big Sam has to lift his squad quickly, and I’d suggest it’s time for him to go back to basics.
It’s all well and good being a clever, forward-thinking boss but Allardyce must also remember that football is a simple game when it boils down to it. Players want to know where they stand, and be given the platform to do what they do best.
How much worse could West Ham United be with a straightforward 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 system that all the players are comfortable with?
At Upton Park this Saturday it won’t just be Martin Jol that’s in the spotlight. All eyes will be on the West Ham gaffer too.
Bet now on West Ham to be relegated at 5.50
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