Upton Park is the battleground for Saturday’s early kickoff between West Ham and Chelsea, and another London derby is on the offing. This one takes place away from Stamford Bridge with a trip across London to visit the newly-promoted West Ham side led by Sam Allardyce.
However, West Ham are not playing like a team that just suffered relegation two years prior. Despite going down, they managed to retain the services of many of the Premier League-quality players that were on their books in the prior season and attained 86 points in earning promotion back to the Premier League via the playoffs.
This season, Allardyce has added to that mix with a number of players that have helped him in his quest to stay up this season. The addition of Matt Jarvis from relegated Wolverhampton Wanderers has given his side a shot of creativity in the wings, and the signing of Andy Carroll on loan from Liverpool gives Allardyce the big man up front that he craves for his style of play. It’s no surprise then that West Ham find themselves in 10th position in the league and rather comfortably safe at this stage of the season.
First thing to look at when you play West Ham is the style of play that Allardyce brings.
It’s quite simplistic, I think, to categorize the style of Allardyce and any team that he manages as simply “route one football.” To me, that’s a slight disservice to what Allardyce actually seems to instill in his players tactically.
The best way that I describe it is “disruptive.” While I believe the end result of their play is to get it into attacking positions as quickly as possible, resulting in a number of longer passes being played, I also think that structurally, Allardyce sets his sides up to not be beaten easily. I don’t believe that they set out just looking to hit long balls forward, but I think they look to essentially stop you from playing how you want by denying you the time and space on the ball. It’s a lot like Stoke City, but I don’t think that West Ham rely on overt physicality as much as Stoke. I think they’re a lot more clever with how they move the ball and how they defend off the ball with good structure and not as much with aggression.
I think it’s why Allardyce has been the choice of teams who are risking relegation or could get sucked into the relegation battle. The style of play is such that his teams don’t often score bags of goals, but they also don’t concede them either, and therefore, don’t lose as many games.
This level of structure is hard to break down, just ask Manchester United, and it’s something that I think will concern Chelsea.
On Wednesday night, United found how hard it can be to play against as an early goal was the only scoring during the night. United went up after the first minute, but were essentially shut down for the next 89 minutes and stoppage time by a great defensive performance by West Ham. The big key to me is that West Ham don’t just retain their shape and force you to play it around them. They basically cut off the passing lanes better than anyone, forcing you to have to retreat and play back passes.
Herein lies the problem. One of Chelsea’s main weaknesses this season has come against teams that play a deep defensive line and sit men behind the ball. Because of the nature of the playmakers and the desire to play through the back line, teams that do sit deep not only give themselves an extra line to help defend the passes, but they also give the attackers less space to get into between the center backs and the goalkeeper, meaning anything threaded through often gets cleared or collected by the goalkeeper.
It’s something that I think became a real problem once teams realised how Juan Mata, Oscar, and Eden Hazard were trying to play. Since United match, many teams have sat back and defended and looked to counterattack down the flanks. It’s given them less options to play preferred through balls, and it’s forced Fernando Torres (although he’s not been that great all-around) to have to play with his back to goal and turn a defender, which has never really been his game.
It’ll be interesting to see the approach that Chelsea take in trying to face this West Ham side. Keep in mind that United with van Persie and Javier Hernandez found it just as difficult to find that space.
Beware Andy Carroll … if he plays.
Perhaps one benefit for Chelsea is that Andy Carroll’s participation is in question with an injury to his knee. Anyone that watched him for Liverpool last season against us in the FA Cup might consider that to be a small blessing.
Although Carroll has not scored goals, he’s been a general menace just because he has a bit of a quick burst of pace, strength, and the ability to win the ball in the air. On his day, he’s almost as unplayable as Didier Drogba is simply because of the similar skill set. As Carroll’s former Liverpool teammate Jamie Carragher once extolled the virtues of how difficult it is to play Drogba on his day, the same can be said about Carroll. He offers that same quickness that prevents you from nicking it from him before he receives the pass, coupled with the strength to turn you if you try to play behind.
However, the two big issues with Carroll are mental focus and finishing ability. Sometimes when you watch Carroll, you wonder what game he’s actually play. For as good as he can be, he can also be the complete opposite where he seems to be wandering around the pitch on a completely different planet to anyone else. Allardyce has managed to get him to focus better, but there are still a number of times that he just goes missing because he’s not in the right places.
The second thing is that I don’t think Carroll’s a great finisher. To me, if he can just hit the ball with power and the ball stays on frame, that’s when he’s most likely to score. He does somewhat lack the deftness in touch that the top-class finishers have and sometimes, it appears that his game is more predicated on the power side, when he does have a bit of skill to him.
All that said, he’s still young, but Carroll is quite a force when he’s on his game. If he doesn’t play, look for Carlton Cole to take his place.
Watch out for the men that supply the bullets to the strikers.
I think the most impressive aspect of West Ham are the central midfielders that they have. The biggest difference that I see in the midfield of West Ham are players that play with energy, but also read the game very well and can make passes. Key to their midfield has been the play of their captain, Kevin Nolan, who came over from Newcastle last season. Nolan and Mark Noble have formed a formidable midfield duo because both understand how to restrict the spaces but also have the ability to dictate the tempo of play.
For me, everything about the Allardyce system is predicated on having three midfielders in the center that can disrupt the play of the opposition’s midfield. If they do their job, the center backs should be relatively clean and free to simply act as sweepers.
Also, watch out for Jarvis on the wing. His play with Wolves last season sparked a campaign for an England call up, though his play has dropped off since then. However, undoubtedly, he is talented with pace and trickery, and coupled with Stephen Hunt, he did give us problems at Wolves last season. Now add in the fact he has Carroll to aim for, and you might have another area of concern.
So how do you beat them?
I think what’s paramount to beating this West Ham team can fall into two categories: take your chances and force them to come out and play.
United and City both got very few chances against West Ham, but they finished them and got victories. Arsenal falls into the latter category because, knowingly or unknowingly, they allowed West Ham a lot of the ball and made them feel as if they could attack Arsenal. Then when the gaps appeared, Arsenal destroyed them through Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla once they got space.
This is where I think this match could end up being won big or end up in a third consecutive 0-0 draw. Rafa Benitez style is one where Chelsea do sit a bit deeper and exert a bit less pressure in higher positions. The positive is that it does create a bit more space behind the opposition by encouraging them to step a bit more forward. The downside is that if you play that way and the opponent doesn’t come out and play, you’re stuck with two teams not doing much of anything.
Right now, the balance between when to press the attack and when to sit deeper and provoke hasn’t been struck, and to be honest, hasn’t been struck often this season. In the early games, teams tried to come out and almost bully Mata and Hazard because of being slighter players, which meant that space was left to exploit. Once they started dropping off them, they’ve become less effective. The difficulty is finding a way to break a team down that will sit deep against you but without simply throwing numbers forward. Until that balance is found, I fear that a lot of 0-0 draws will happen just because Benitez will not want to give up the solidity at the back to push too many men forward. That’s the overall problem right now.