Adam Bate looks at five reasons for West Ham’s impressive upturn in form so far this season...
Quality in attack
Goalscoring was a huge problem for West Ham last season. The fact that the club’s top Premier League scorer was Kevin Nolan with seven goals highlighted their striker struggles. Carlton Cole did find the net six times but Andy Carroll scored just twice in an injury-hit season, while neither Mladen Petric nor Marco Borriello were trusted with a single league start.
The arrival of Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia this season has had a transformative effect. “I don’t think they realise what a big impact they’ve made,” says West Ham boss Sam Allardyce. “I think the rest of the team has been lifted by those two.” Sakho has already matched Nolan’s tally from last season and Valencia has also contributed with three goals.
Diafra Sakho's total of 98 sprints in the win over Liverpool is a Premier League high so far this season.
As Allardyce suggests, the goals are only part of the story. Carroll and Cole can be effective target men but the new signings add a new dimension. The injection of pace into the Hammers forward line has been significant. Neither of the big men average 50 sprints per 90 minutes. In comparison, Valencia averages 68 and Sakho is up there at 76 – with his 98 sprints against Liverpool being a Premier League record for the season.
It’s allowing West Ham to press teams from the front and win the ball high up the field thanks to having runners in the channels. They have gone from being a functional outfit to one of the most dangerous in the division with Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham the only teams to have created more chances.
Kept the best bits
That’s not to say West Ham have not retained the qualities that have seen them finish comfortably in mid-table in each of the past two seasons. The physical power remains. Allardyce’s men have scored the most goals from set-pieces this season and attempted the second-highest number of crosses. Only Stoke have won more aerial duels than the Hammers.
Heading the way
West Ham have had 29 headed shots on target this season, 11 more than any other Premier League team.
Of course, much of that can be explained by the continued presence of Carroll within the squad. His 16 aerial duels won in the 1-0 win over former club Newcastle is a Premier League high, while only Peter Crouch can match the 15 that Carroll produced against Everton, Swansea and Leicester.
Swansea’s inclusion in that list is evidence that Allardyce is a reactive manager who adapts his plans depending upon the opposition. Having seen that Swansea were overpowered by the direct approach in February he retained elements of those tactics for their December meeting. Tellingly, West Ham have had 29 headed atttempts on target this season – the next best is Chelsea with just 18.
Tweaked the formation
Hitting on a new formation that poses fresh problems for the opposition has been a crucial part of the West Ham success story. Allardyce might have been delighted with the success of his 4-6-0 in the win at Tottenham last season but there was never any great conviction among the West Ham support that it offered a long-term solution to their problems. The diamond is different.
Playing the diamond 4-4-2 formation has been key for West Ham because it has allowed them to keep the necessary numbers in the middle of the pitch as well as ensuring there are still two strikers there to provide an attacking threat too. “Sam made that decision so he deserves the accolades because, had it not worked, he’d have been castigated,” says co-owner David Sullivan.
The switch might not have been so successful had Allardyce not had the right player to occupy the role at the tip of the diamond. But to find him he had to redeploy a player already within the ranks. Stewart Downing has embraced the position in fine style, scoring four goals, providing six assists and creating 52 chances – more than anyone in the Premier League except Cesc Fabregas.
“Stewart's like a different player and you'd have to thank Sam for changing the formation, which seems to suit him a lot better than just being a winger,” says Sullivan. And yet, Downing is also West Ham in microcosm – keeping the best bits of his game but adding so much more. For example, despite the move to the middle, he’s still put in more successful crosses than any other Premier League player.
Of course, the new formation places extra emphasis on the full-backs to provide the necessary width. Two new arrivals have helped with that. Aaron Creswell represents a significant upgrade at left-back and has already earned the moniker of Mr Dependable from his manager. But he brings offensive qualities too – as shown by his winner against Newcastle.
We focus on defending in training and we do a lot of work on one-v-ones and heading and I feel I’ve developed in those areas.
On the other flank, Carl Jenkinson has been enjoying himself on loan from Arsenal. While getting forward to good effect, defensive duties remain at the heart of his job. “We focus on defending in training and we do a lot of work on one-v-ones and heading and I feel I’ve developed in those areas,” Jenkinson told the Guardian earlier this month. This diligent defensive work has helped West Ham – only four teams have conceded fewer goals.
That only two teams in the Premier League have made fewer errors leading to a shot or goal highlights the importance Allardyce continues to place on minimising risk, encouraging his players to play their football in the opposition half. West Ham rank among the top three for clearances and the top four in the division for headed clearances. They do the basics well.
James Tomkins is improving and Winston Reid is arguably one of the strongest pure defenders in the country. Individually, Reid ranks among the top six for clearances and headed clearances, and Allardyce’s recent suggestion that it would take £20million to even talk about a sale stresses his significance to the team.
Strength in depth
However, while undoubtedly important, even Reid might not be irreplaceable in this West Ham team. Indeed, they took three points and kept a clean sheet in the only game he’s missed so far this season. That depth of quality has been crucial for the club as they’ve already had to cope with plenty of injury problems.
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Fortunately for Allardyce, when he has had to call on the squad they have responded. West Ham have had 12 different Premier League goalscorers so far this season – only leaders Chelsea (13) can boast so many. “I have got a much better squad and there is more strength in depth,” says Allardyce.
“Our strength in depth of the squad is what's paying off for us at the moment. We've had to change the team again, some by fatigue, some by an injury, and use the squad to its maximum again.”
That will be tested more than ever over the Christmas and New Year period with the Boxing Day trip to Chelsea preceding a home game against Arsenal a little over 48 hours after the final whistle has blown at Stamford Bridge. It's a daunting schedule, but seldom has there been such cause for optimism at Upton Park.
Watch Chelsea v West Ham live on Boxing Day from 12.30pm on Sky Sports 1 HD