Sympathy for Sam Allardyce is in short supply but the in-fighting must stop if West Ham are to have a successful season
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 11th (NB: this is not necessarily Jacob Steinberg’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 13th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 5,000-1
Andy Carroll is out for four months with an ankle injury. David Sullivan appears to be making it his business to undermine Sam Allardyce in public. Allardyce has been told to play more attractive football. Allardyce is affronted by these demands. The supporters are verging on mutiny. Pre-season results have been dreadful, the performances not much better. Ravel Morrison has been in court. Happy new season, everyone! How was your summer?
Seasoned followers of West Ham are conditioned to expect the worst and the fear is that they are heading in the wrong direction after a fraught summer. The likelihood is that West Ham should have enough to survive the drop and, if there is stability, they could push for a mid-table finish. Allardyce has never been relegated. Yet it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which they start badly, sack Allardyce, replace him with a dud and go down. Sullivan and David Gold got it right when they hired Allardyce in 2011, but only after the absurd decision to appoint his predecessor, Avram Grant, resulted in relegation.
Sympathy for Allardyce is in short supply. Many people consider him to be brash and arrogant and he often makes life unnecessarily difficult for himself with some of his comments. He can be a PR disaster and although it was understandable, his decision to cup his ears at the crowd after they booed at the end of a stultifying 2-1 victory over Hull City in March was not clever. He has dismissed the West Ham Way in the past, calling supporters delusional, and there was a glimpse of his inability to understand the ethos of the club after they lost 3-1 to Sydney FC last month. “We’re just working on our new style as we’ve got to get a bit more open and expansive as it seems to be what’s demanded in the game now,” Allardyce said.
Allardyce, who is deeply unpopular with most supporters, was expected to be sacked at the end of a troubled, injury-plagued season. There is a minority who believe that would be a populist move, that Allardyce is the perfect man to keep them out of trouble, even if the football is soul-crushingly boring. When West Ham were in the mire at the turn of the year, the board correctly reasoned that he was the best man to keep them up once his best players returned from injury. Come May, though, it seemed that his time was up.
Meetings were held and alternatives were contemplated but after coming up with nothing, Allardyce was given a stay of execution. Now his brief is to implement the “values and philosophy” expected at Upton Park, while the board “insisted on improvements to the set-up of the playing and backroom staff to ensure the team provides more entertainment next season” and will seek evidence of “progression on the pitch and at least a top-10 finish”. Allardyce also agreed that the board would have a greater say over transfers, while Teddy Sheringham has been hired as an attacking coach.
Whether Allardyce can meet the board’s demands remains to be seen. West Ham lost 20 times last season, played a higher percentage of long passes than any other side (17%), registered the lowest shooting accuracy figure in the Premier League last (37.4%), were involved in the most 0-0 draws (six), dropped the most points from winning positions (20) and only won four points from losing positions. When they conceded the first goal, they lost 15 times and they failed to score in 15 league matches. They scored three equalisers all season. Only two players, Kevin Nolan and Carlton Cole, managed more than five league goals and even they did not get close to double figures. Essentially West Ham could not find a replacement to bring this marriage of convenience to an end and it did not take long for the sniping from both sides to start.
The mood is threatening to become poisonous. It does not help that they have only won one game in pre-season and that they are still lacking ideas in attack. Supporters are up in arms on social media and there were reports that Allardyce had beer thrown over him after an insipid 2-0 defeat to Málaga in Germany two weeks ago. No one is emerging from this with much dignity and if West Ham lose to Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, Upton Park will not be a happy place. Losing Carroll again, while not shocking given his injury record, is a huge blow for Allardyce and Sullivan has helpfully said that signing him was a mistake. “Had we known what we know now we wouldn’t have signed the player,” Sullivan said last month.
Suspicions were raised when Carroll was absent for West Ham’s first two friendlies and then came the news that he would take no in part in their tour of New Zealand because he was nursing an ankle complaint. When it emerged that he had torn ankle ligaments, no one was surprised and immediately thoughts turned to the way that West Ham strained without him in the first half of last season.
The difference this season is that they have a replacement for Carroll after spending £12m on Enner Valencia, who caught the eye for Ecuador at the World Cup, scoring three goals in the group stage and displaying a promising combination of powerful running and aerial ability. However while Valencia, who can play through the middle or on the flanks, appears to be suited to the Premier League, he has not played during pre-season and has said that he is not up to speed yet.
It was essential another striker arrived. Sunderland rejected a bid for Connor Wickham, interest in Peter Crouch led nowhere and thoughts started to turn to the way that West Ham found themselves having to sign Mladen Petric and Cole on free transfers after the closure of the transfer window last year. However then came positive news on Thursday night as West Ham completed the signing of Diafra Sakho, a 24-year-old Senegalese forward, from Metz.
Sakho is an unknown quantity. He has scored 43 goals in the past two seasons but they came in the lower leagues in France as Metz won successive promotions to reach Ligue 1. Yet his 20 goals last year helped Metz win the title by 11 points and earned him Ligue 2’s player of the year award. He is better than nothing at the very least and an inspired bargain at best. Time will tell. But it is a timely boost.
As it happens, much of West Ham’s work in the transfer market has been positive. There is excitement over the £7m signing of the Senegal midfielder, Cheikhou Kouyate, from Anderlecht. Kouyate has been one of West Ham’s better players during pre-season. Carl Jenkinson, who has joined on a season-long loan from Arsenal, is an upgrade on Guy Demel and Joey O’Brien, Ipswich Town were sorry to lose Aaron Cresswell and Diego Poyet, a 19-year-old midfielder who has signed from Charlton Athletic, is tipped for a big future. Then there is Mauro Zárate, volatile and with a reputation for selfishness, but potentially brilliant.
Allardyce has also shown a willingness to move away from his favoured 4-3-3 formation and, presumably inspired by Louis van Gaal, injuries to his full-backs allowed him to experiment with a 3-5-2 formation in last Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Sampdoria at Upton Park. In one way, that system could play to West Ham’s strengths. Their defence kept 14 clean sheets last season and James Collins, Winston Reid and James Tomkins are solid central defenders, although none of them are particularly comfortable with the ball at their feet.
It is unclear how that will be resolved but West Ham do need more cover in central defence. To go into the season with only three centre-backs would show that they have not learnt from last season, when injuries to Collins, Reid and Tomkins around the new year forced them to play full-backs and midfielders in the middle of their defence. The solution was to sign Roger Johnson on loan from Wolves in January.
However when the defence is settled, West Ham can be extremely difficult to break down. Demel and O’Brien have been dependable options on the right but Jenkinson will be expected to provide more impetus offensively and Cresswell, who takes a dangerous set-piece, should slot in well on the left, while Adrián will hope to build on an encouraging debut season in goal. The Spaniard played his part after usurping Jussi Jaaskelainen, particularly when he frustrated Chelsea in a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge in January.
The grit and determination West Ham displayed on that January evening is partly why Allardyce has kept his job. As dismal as the football was last season, the theory goes that Allardyce will keep them up and that now is not the time to gamble with the move to the Olympic Stadium two years away. When they leave Upton Park, it is essential that they are in the Premier League. Relegation is unthinkable. Beginning life in their in shiny new stadium while they are in the Championship would not only be the ultimate embarrassment, it would be a financial disaster for a club that has debts of around £75m.
Equally the football must improve or else supporters will start to lose interest. There needs to be more variety to West Ham’s approach, which was based on aiming for Carroll and, without wishing to be overly dismissive, seeing what happened from there. Sometimes it worked but defences largely know what to expect, while West Ham’s lack of pace and creativity meant that teams were able to squeeze the play against them. The wingers, Stewart Downing and Matt Jarvis, were rarely played into space behind their markers so that defences were forced to face their own goal and they often found themselves crossing from deep positions. Downing is likeable but frustrating, a lack of conviction holding him back and preventing him from making the most of his talent, while Jarvis is hit and miss.
There was plenty of toil in a workmanlike midfield but not enough inspiration. Mark Noble, who has grown in stature under Allardyce, played with great maturity and Matt Taylor, who has joined Burnley, was a tireless performer, but Mohamed Diamé was unhappy at being shunted out wide and there were over doubts over whether Nolan, the captain, was worth his place. It is often hard to work out what Nolan does when he is not scoring and it does not help that he is seen as Allardyce’s man, yet he is the side’s leader and the midfield was noticeably more disorganised when he was missing.
That will not stop calls for Nolan to be dropped. His place could come under threat from Kouyate, who is also an option in central defence, and Poyet, a neat technician.
West Ham were under pressure to get rid of Allardyce when they were hovering near the foot of the table at the turn of the year, but there was recognition that the squad had been decimated by injuries in attack and central defence. Sure enough, four wins in February were all West Ham required to drag themselves over the line, the mediocrity of the bottom half meaning that a team that lost 20 games while playing not to lose was able to finish 13th with 40 points.
Ultimately success for West Ham at the most basic level is survival. That is the cold reality these days. West Ham are not about to break the glass ceiling that exists in the Premier League. Yet it is not too much to hope that this time the whole experience is, well, more fun.
This is not a popular opinion but Allardyce is a proven manager at this level, regardless of whether or not people approve of his methods, and it would be disingenuous not to point out that there have been good times: promotion at the first attempt, victory over Chelsea, three successive wins over Tottenham. That is something to remember when people rage against him. Some of the criticism has been unfair and one-sided. The in-fighting must stop.
Of course, Allardyce is far from blameless and he needs to show more humility, adventure and understanding of West Ham. He needs to listen and embrace the challenge, not play the victim and act like the world is against him, because he will find that no one is willing to listen any more. Supporters cannot be blamed for wanting more entertainment. They do not part with their cash to watch a balance sheet every week.
Jacob Steinberg for the Guardian