The fact that West Ham finished 13th last season with only 40 points speaks volumes to the standard of the Premier League mid-table at the moment. There is a sense that the top seven teams in the league are quite far apart from the rest of the table, and one or two wrong moves could see anyone below them fighting relegation. That being said, West Ham were never really genuine relegation fare, thanks in part to more than a handful of poor other sides. Despite the failure of the Andy Carroll project, Sam Allardyce has done well to make West Ham a resolute team, conceding just one goal more than Liverpool last season, giving them the 10th best defence in the league.
However, scoring was the problem from the Hammers, with Kevin Nolan their top scorer with seven goals. As a consequence of this, Sam Allardyce has come under pressure from a section of the supporters who believe they can have attractive football as well as stability. A good way of seeing how this could be achieved would be to look at Stoke City as a club. Stoke were notorious for their ‘robust’ style of play and would have continued much the same with Tony Pulis. Pulis gave Stoke stability, just as Allardyce has for West Ham, before he was let go. However, sacking Allardyce this season would be a mistake. Allardyce is a manager who has never been relegated; he knows how to survive. Another year or two of patience in Allardyce and mid-table stability will be required before a more adventurous manager is installed, if they are required in the first place.
Despite his defensive reputation, Allardyce knows and has spent much of the summer addressing his attacking problem at West Ham. The move for Enner Valencia is a bold one. It would be naïve to assume that Enner Valencia comes to Upton Park/The Boleyn Ground purely based on a decent cameo in Brazil, but the pricey move for a player in the significantly weaker Mexican league is certain to put pressure on Allardyce. With rumours abound that Peter Crouch will follow the Ecuadorian, it’s conceivable that Allardyce could use Valencia as utility attacker, playing out wide when needed. While Valencia has good physical attributes, I’m not sure he’s good enough technically to deal with the breakneck pace of the Premier League and could struggle in this adjustment period. However, Valencia is 25 years old and should be at, or least close, to his peak, so it’s not unforeseeable that he could surprise a few people.
Prior to Valencia’s arrival, Mauro Zarate also arrived. To call Zarate mercurial would be an understatement. There is no question that Zarate is a very talented player, but mentally, he has struggled throughout his career. Despite this, Zarate could be an effective surprise; it just depends which Zarate West Ham have got. If Zarate can put past controversies behind him and not be sucked into and spat out of the lifestyle of a millionaire footballer in London, he could potentially flourish at West Ham; he needs to as he is fast running out of chances.
Elsewhere, West Ham acquired Diego Poyet (son of Gus). While he is unlikely to feature too much this season, Poyet has real potential and could be a bit of coup for a free from Charlton. With the addition of Cheikhou Kouyate, a player linked with clubs such as Everton, Arsenal and Manchester City, West Ham and Allardyce are showing genuine ambition this season. The failed bid for Conor Wickham again illustrates Allardyce’s commitment to bolstering his attack and this should sway some of his detractors.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
All eyes will be on Enner Valencia; Big Sam’s detractors will be looking for a reason to call for his head and as his biggest risk this window, Valencia must perform quickly.
Another player to watch would be Kevin Nolan. At 32 years of age, there’s no question of Nolan’s experience, and season after season, he has managed to perform at a high level with goals never leaving his game, as they have done for other veterans throughout the years. However, with new young players coming through, could these be Nolan’s twilight years? The attacking signings will take some pressure off Nolan, but despite being the Hammers’ captain, this could be the season where the reliable Scouser begins to take a backseat from first team action.
With mid-table in a state of flux, West Ham have made some strong additions and a statement of intent that they can pull themselves up above the league fodder. If risks such as Zarate and Valencia come off, then I think West Ham can have a strong season. I think it’s too soon for West Ham to mount a challenge on a Europa spot, but I expect them to make some headway up the table. With Southampton being dismembered and Stoke not strengthening significantly, I can see West Ham making it into the top ten this season.