Chris Atkins believes West Ham are becoming increasingly easy on the eye.
Sam Allardyce was in understandably high spirits on Saturday evening. Having seen his side dismantle last season’s Premier League runners-up Liverpool, he was not going to let the opportunity to cash in on a famous victory pass—quite justifiably after a summer in which his job was debated from first to last. "It's a well-deserved victory - it's not a lucky one,” he was keen to stress. “It’s not Liverpool having an off day, it's West Ham being absolutely brilliant on the day.”
The former Bolton manager is, of course, fully entitled to bask in the media coverage such a success brings. Football management away from the top clubs, where Allardyce has spent his entire managerial career to date, is an unforgiving world. Highs have to be enjoyed when they arise and, over the past 12 months, they have been few and far between for the Hammers. Over the past seven days, though, there have been signs that things may just be coming together at the Boleyn Ground.
It has only been in the last two fixtures since the international break against Hull and Liverpool that Allardyce has been able to call upon coming close to his full squad of players, with strikers Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia finally ready to start. Late summer arrivals of Alex Song and Morgan Amalfitano, too, have done much to improve the outlook for Hammers season, while highly-rated full-back Aaron Cresswell looks a real coup thus far. In the diamond 4-4-2 system employed in both games over the past few days, they appear a well-balanced side from back to front—a vast improvement on last year in itself.
It was the pace and power of Allardyce’s side that hurt Liverpool so badly. Valencia and Sakho pulled into the space behind the full-backs, stretching play and opening gaps from which Stewart Downing could operate in a No. 10 role. The Englishman, enjoying a fine start to the season with a goal and three assists to his name, appears to enjoy his new central role. Given space, Downing can hurt sides and he made former teammate Steven Gerrard look incredibly ordinary this weeend. It must be added, though, that his life is made considerably easier by the work-rate and defensive discipline of the midfield trio behind him.
The giant Senegalese Cheikhou Kouyate has already made a significant impact in East London, adding power and dynamism to the centre of the midfield. Partnered with the similarly direct but technically more refined Alex Song on Saturday, West Ham quickly took a hold on the midfield battle and forced Liverpool into an early formational change. With the equally tenacious but intelligent distributor Mark Noble at the base of the trio, there is an intriguing balance of skill and physicality at the heart the West Ham side. Pace and dynamism are far from football’s be all and end all, but every side needs players who can alter the speed of a game.
Allardyce has always known how to set up a defensive unit and, indeed, how to take advantage of set-pieces. In that respect, it is no surprise that the side remains a real threat from crosses into the box, but there is now far more intent to play the ball through midfield than was ever evident last season. With Downing, Song, Noble and, on occasion, Mauro Zarate in central areas, Allardyce has a number of players at his disposal who can pick a pass and unlock defences. Eleven key passes made this weekend to Liverpool’s eight tells its own story of the game.
The Hammers have not become world-beaters overnight, but there is no reason to suggest they cannot secure league safety early this season if key players remain fit. The Hammers board have publicly demanded a more aesthetically pleasing style of football this season and, on current evidence, there has already been a marked improvement.
The challenge for Allardyce and his side if they are to fulfil all their targets this season is now to sustain their current levels over the course of what is expected to be the most competitive season in Premier League history. For Hammers supporters, a season of relative stability would be a welcome relief after the ups and downs that recent years have brought the way of Upton Park. For now at least, there is reason to be hopeful.
You can find Chris on twitter at @ChrisAtkins_Categories: Premier League