Get enough men in forward positions, deliver enough balls into dangerous areas, and select players who can actually finish and you have a recipe for success. Just about every West Ham supporter who has been forced to watch the dire defence-prioritised performances of recent times has been chanting this mantra, in my case bellowing it directly at Sam Allardyce from my seat behind the dug out, for match after match after match. The plea has fallen on deaf, obstinate and narrow-minded ears.
Big Sam’s defence is his pride and joy, his ‘signature dish’ to use a gastronomic metaphor, his comfort blanket if you like. Concede no goals, never lose a game…great in theory, but not so clever if you are unable to create and score goals, and it’s those last two elements of the jig-saw that have been missing.
Creativity and goals don’t come cheap, we all know that. Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool have forked out hugely on top line strikers and ball playing magicians who do all the damage, and players of this calibre are beyond the proverbial wallet of most Premier League clubs, not just the Hammers. However, and this is where I have always taken issue with my gum chewing mate from the West Midlands, set up to defend and contain and kiss goodbye to not only goals, but also the opportunity to score the goals in the first place. The old lottery saying “in it to win it” can be tweaked a little to show football teams that possession maintained deep in your own territory may look great in the following days stats that so many love to read and digest, but when all is said and done, is having 450 completed passes of any worth if these were played entirely in your own half, and if these stats also showed no shots, no corners and no threat?
West Ham have to date huffed and puffed. Not only have they failed to blow the house down. They have also failed to alert the three pigs inside that a potential claret and blue threat was anywhere in the bloody neighbourhood.
The guile was non-existent, and West Ham’s best passer and ball player was generally seen deep, manfully keeping the ball moving and cleverly probing all sectors of the pitch. Believe me, Mark Noble would have been desperate to do his stuff thirty yards out from the opposition net, but a lack of midfield support has always seen him penned back in a defensive rather than attacking role. We were presented with the chatty but ineffective Kevin Nolan as our link-man when in essence he was no more than a playground goal-hanger, never seeming to know if he was striking, defending, linking or advancing.
Yesterday, the busy and tricky Mauro Zarate showed in technicolour exactly what we had been missing; a forward thinking player blessed with pace, quick feet, an eye for goal and energy. Sam’s bromance with Nolan has been a major factor in the teams lack of forward momentum. Zarate cured this weakness at a stroke, and add in the ever impressive Stewart Downing raiding down the right, Aaron Cresswell delivering some ammunition from the left, the strong tackling and forward minded running of Cheikhou Kouyate , and the dependable fulcrum that is Mark Noble having an open play starting position some 20 yards higher up the pitch, then the attacking element of our play seemed so much more focused, evident and almost tangible. It’s not often we have celebrated going two up, but against Palace, the threat was clear, and importantly the mind set just seemed to be that much more positive. How can you gauge a team’s defence unless it is tested and pressured? We saw that once the first goal hit the net, Palace looked uncomfortable, sat back and for once, we took advantage and went for a second. It came in further style, and even at 2-1, there was no intent to sit back and soak things up. Good numbers in and around the box gave us a welcome third goal and it was game set and match. Was this three goal haul and attack minder performance by accident or design? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s time we cut the manager a little slack after a welcome win and give him the benefit of the doubt.
Carlton Cole scored our third. No cheap shots here from me. I’ve said for so long there is only so much a lone striker can do, and even the world’s best are up against it fighting two or three defenders. There was however more support for Cole than usual, and to see at times four and five Hammers men in and around the box looking for lay backs and knock downs was a truly welcome sight.
For me, the Palace performance and set up must form a new and attack minded template. We have more youth and energy in the side, the strikers bought in clearly know the way to goal and must be given starting places ahead of the old guard who in all fairness have had more than a fair chance to perform but haven’t. There are times, especially at home where Enner Valencia and Mauro Zarate must form the attacking spear head with a playmaker behind, possibly in the shape of Diego Poyet or Ravel Morrison. The workhorse Kouyate covers ground and tackles well, and him and Noble can form a good holding alliance in the centre.
The big worry is that Allardyce will revert straight back to his knee-jerk Nolan at-all-costs selection policy. Let’s hope that some of Teddy Sheringham’s coaching and influence are beginning to pay dividends! I’ve just seen the future (for the time being) and it’s Zarate-based!