September 17, 2012 by Socrates
Just four games into the league season and it seems that there is a real confidence surrounding West Ham. Lying in 7th position, the East London club have notched up two wins and an away draw with just a single defeat coming from their trip away at Swansea. Added to the lofty placing in the table, the capture of Andy Carroll on loan has clealy buoyed the supporters and had the pundits backing the Hammers to a comfortable season after their return to the premier league. There are reasons to feel that West Ham are well equipped to compete and their start so far has seen points won. However, under closer scrutiny, it may be that West Ham are in for a much tougher season that some seem to think.
Andy Carroll’s display on his debut for the Hammers showed us exactly why Sam Allardyce was so keen to be reunited with him. Carroll appeared enthused in his role as the focal point of his new team’s play and relished the physical battle against Fulham’s towering centre-half Brede Hangeland who has rarely been seen so troubled in the air. But the debut also witnessed a bad hamstring injury for Carroll. The four or so league games without him will test the form of Carlton Cole and maybe even Modibo Maiga. But more worryingly it looks as though Carroll is hardly immune to the physical demands of top flight football – his first season at Liverpool was inhibited by an inability to recover from a thigh strain.
Even if West Ham can keep Andy Carroll in good physical condition, his ability to score goals will surely rely on the likes of Matt Jarvis, Ricardo Vaz Te or even Matty Taylor to produce performances from wide areas. Allardyce will be concerned with the lack of depth he has in wide areas and indeed how vulnerable his full backs (Demel/O’Brien/McCartney) will be if they are left with too much defending to do on the flanks. Most concerning of all however are the two players that the manager knows best; Kevin Nolan and Jussi Jääskeläinen.
Kevin Nolan is a fantastic captain and has been terrific in his role as an attacking midfielder, getting close to the target man whether it be Carroll or Cole. He possesses a physical presence on the business end of crosses and a great composure in the final third which allows him to execute the right pass or a clever finish. However, the unusually hefty midfielder is somewhat of a luxury player. Lacking the mobility to harry opponents, he adds little defensively to the team other than picking up aerial threats when defending set-plays. If West Ham begin hit a rough patch, Allardyce may well face the difficult decision of dropping the captain for a more athletic player. If big Sam wants to continue to rely on attacking the flanks and wants old-fashioned pacey wide players, it looks as though Yossi Benayoun would be best suited to replace the skipper. This would allow the industrious and defensively savvy pairing of Noble and Diarra to remain in central midfield.
Lastly, the veteran goal keeper Jussi Jääskeläinen has had a poor start to his time at West Ham. While it is precedented for an ageing player to belie the decision of the selling (or indeed simply releasing) club and to refind or maintain his form (for instance Andrea Pirlo followed his release from A.C. Milan with a Serie A title with Juventus), it is more often the case that they do not. Jussi made over 500 appearances at Bolton over more than 15 years. While West Ham fans may point to the fact Jääskeläinen rejected the offer of a two year contract, the Fin had lost his starting place to Adam Bogdan and looked set to play as back up for the rest of his time there. Jussi may still be highly regarded by fans and pundits alike, but his start has been a shaky one and there has been little to take from his displays to suggest that Bolton made the wrong decision in demoting him for the second half of last season.
West Ham’s upcoming fixtures will undoubtedly be telling as to where they are likely to finish this season. Without Carroll it seems, they will host the organisation and tenacity of Sunderland before the arrival of Wigan’s flair. These two home games are followed by visits to QPR and then high-flying Arsenal. Interestingly, the match against Arsenal, which will be the Hammers’ 8th match into the season, will be their first against a top six side. Of course it’s a good start, but there is plenty of tests lying in wait for West Ham and a few causes of concern for the newly promoted club.