West Ham United 2014/15 Season Preview: Big Sam’s Make Or Break Season
West Ham and Sam Allardyce have always had a somewhat uneasy relationship despite the fact that he has seemingly accomplished what’s been asked of him.
After being appointed West Ham manager in 2011, he guided the club into the Premier League albeit via the playoffs before retaining top flight status for the Hammers finishing 10th in the 2012/13 season and 13th the following year. Allardyce managed to steer his side to the semifinals of the League Cup last season as well.
On paper those appear to be respectable achievements but as the cliché goes, football isn’t played on paper.
Last season West Ham flirted dangerously with relegation before pulling clear, winning four league matches in a row in February. From March onwards, though, their form was dire losing eight of their last eleven league games. Though crucially in that period they also managed to register three wins. The less said about their capitulation to Manchester City in the League Cup semifinal, the better.
The root problem for the restlessness is the functional nature of West Ham’s football under Allardyce. According to Opta, West Ham hit a higher percentage of long passes (17%) than any other side last season.
In order to keep the critics at bay, winning is a must. Losing playing that particular style of football is not going gain any supporters.
Allardyce’s tetchiness with the fans was demonstrated when he questioned the idea of the ‘West Ham way’. In a 2-0 win against Peterborough when the Hammers were chasing promotion, fans were heard chanting “we’re West Ham, we play on the floor.” Allardyce’s response was brusque.
“There has never been a ‘West Ham way’ shown to me, not by anyone who has worked at the club. I’ve spoken to a lot of people at the club and no one can tell me what it is, so it is a bit of a delusion.”
More recently he had to contend with fans jeering his side despite beating Hull City 2-1. Allardyce couldn’t quite fathom why his team was being booed despite winning all three points and herein lies the problem — the expectation gap between him and the fans is clearly different.
The brief for this season is to finish in a respectable position whilst delivering entertaining football. In terms of player recruitment, West Ham have brought in the likes of Mauro Zárate, Enner Valencia, Aaron Cresswell, Diego Poyet, Cheykhou Kouyaté with Carl Jenkinson arriving from Arsenal on a season long loan.
Joe Cole is the highest profile departure from West Ham though he didn’t really impress on his return to Upton Park. George McCartney and Jack Collison have also been let go by the club.
West Ham has signed cover for Andy Carroll who suffered an injury on tour and could be out till November. After being linked with Samuel Eto’o, Hugo Almeida, Peter Crouch and seeing a bid for Sunderland’s Connor Wickham was knocked back, Allardyce has recruited Diafra Sakho from Metz. Sakho scored 20 goals in Ligue 2 last season but West Ham and Allardyce will need him to quickly make the transition from the second tier of French football to the pace of the Premier League.
The arrival of Zaraté sees a player who offers something genuinely different to the current options West Ham have up front. The key though will be to giving the mercurial striker as much of the ball as possible to ensure that he’s at his most effective.
Enner Valencia arrives on the back of a fairly fruitful World Cup bagging three goals. The reported £12million price tag represents a gamble and he will need to need to get up to speed with the Premier League quickly if West Ham is to prosper. His pace can help stretch the game and key to launching quick counter attacks too. He’s not short of ambition, promising to do his utmost to deliver European football to West Ham.
The onus will be on the front men to create and deliver though as it’s hard to see who else in the team can fashion chances for the strikers finish. Creatively, West Ham appear to be wanting. Last season the Hammers scored 40 goals, which is just over a goal a game.
Mark Noble and Kevin Nolan will need to weigh in with their share of goals (they scored three and seven league goals respectively) as well as making a few for their teammates. Stewart Downing only scored once and created two more last term so more is required from him this season.
Defensively, Winston Reid, arguably the best central defender outside the top four, will be the key man for Allardyce whilst Adrián will be hoping to build on an impressive season for the Hammers. The former Real Betis stopper kept a total of six clean sheets in the league last season and was runner-up to Mark Noble in the Hammer of the Year stakes.
Defensively West Ham is relatively solid finishing joint ninth alongside Spurs in the goals conceded table and managed to keep 14 clean sheets. Of those 14 clean sheets six of them were scoreless draws four of them away from Upton Park and two at home. However last season West Ham dropped 20 points from leading positions suggesting an inability to either kill off teams or shut down games. In terms of statistics West Ham conceded 51 goals translating to 1.34 per game but the pressing need as Allardyce recognizes himself is for his team to score more goals.
It’s all good claiming credit for beating Spurs using a 4-6-0 or holding Chelsea to a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge playing ‘19th century football’ but West Ham cannot afford to be solely a destructive side.
Perhaps the most significant recruit though is not any of the players but a coach. More specifically Teddy Sheringham who has been brought in to work on West Ham’s attacking play. His role will be crucial if West Ham is to deliver more goals. Sheringham’s arrival did force co-chairman David Sullivan into making a statement denying that the former could potentially undermine Allardyce’s position as West Ham boss.
West Ham’s preseason form has not been encouraging with the Hammers notching up a single victory, albeit a 3-2 win against Sampdoria, whilst drawing three and losing three. Whilst too much shouldn’t be read into pre-season fixtures, West Ham could have done with a few more victories to go into the new Premier League season with a sense of optimism.
As it is West Ham have a fairly tricky opening set of fixtures opening with a home match against Spurs before going away to Crystal Palace followed by visit from Southampton. The minimum target from those fixtures should be five points, anything less will see the pressure heaped right back on to Allardyce.
West Ham’s start could also determine how expansive their football could be. If they manage to bag a few points, they will have earned the freedom and space to implement a more eye-catching style of play. However if they get off to a bad start, then Allardyce could revert to type and focus on making West Ham difficult to beat.
David Sullivan said that West Ham should target a ‘top six finish’. That may be out of the reach of West Ham but Allardyce should aim to finish tenth. That could prove to be difficult as Stoke and Newcastle have strengthened whilst Crystal Palace will be looking to build on the foundations set last season. Progress though will not be completely determined by league position as the football will need to be attractive too. Maintaining the status quo simply won’t do for West Ham.
This could well be a make or break season for Allardyce at West Ham. He hasn’t exactly been given unequivocal backing and the fans will be quick to turn if things become sour. West Ham should finish mid-table with the squad at their disposal.
Whether Sam Allardyce will be in charge at the end of the season is a different question entirely.