When he was unveiled as England manager, Sam Allardyce praised his own tactical nous by stating that most Premier League managers wouldn’t have played Jermain Defoe as a lone striker because of his height and physical limitations.
The point, of course, was to attempt to dispel the idea that he’s some sort of long-ball merchant. The former West Ham boss repeatedly stressed Defoe’s height during that first press conference, just so no one would be in any doubt.
The current West Ham boss, however, had settled into the anti-Allardyce approach this season, making sure that Andy Carroll is the player alongside new signing Javier Hernandez over the last few games. Something that has produced a much more typically Allardyce result.
The received wisdom in the Premier League will tell you that a player like Hernandez, who is small, not overly pacey, and whose main positive attribute is his finishing, cannot play alone up front. He’s not tall enough for high balls and crosses, not physical enough to hold the ball up, and isn’t always capable of running in behind defences. Just like Defoe.
But in a sense, Allardyce is right. You don’t need to play those kinds of players in any specific position to get the best out of them. It’s overly simplistic to say that ‘finishing’ is their best quality: ‘finishing’ includes finding space in the box and anticipating when the ball will arrive there before actually sticking it away. Both players can do that so long as they’re given service in the box. If they have to come from wide areas to do it, then so be it.
The problem is getting Hernandez and Carroll into the same team. In some ways, they look like the dream partnership of little and large: the big man adds the physicality the little man can’t provide, but Hernandez, in return, brings mobility.
The reality, though, is a bit different. It’s not just about winding them up and letting them go: you have to get the ball into the box in the right way in the first place, and that means having other creative players in the team. Usually, they are the players who play in wider areas, and that means having Hernandez on the right or the left of a front three means you lose a space for a creative player who can get the ball to him.
That’s partly why Slaven Bilic seems to have experimented with so many different formations so far this season. At the start, he favoured a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 with two wide players and Hernandez in the middle – Allardyce’s Defoe approach. He then switched to a back three in response to some terrible defensive displays to start the season: that’s when Andy Carroll came into the team to play up front, pushing Hernandez into a wider role.
To be fair to Bilic, it does seem as if it’s both the defence and the effectiveness of Andy Carroll that has made the change stick: making sure counter attacks are well covered and there’s an extra defender at the back is what limits his side up front.
And in a way, it’s worked; it has provided a stable base against teams like West Brom and Huddersfield, when clean sheets were a positive, but the turgid football was often a negative. Since then, trying to find the balance has been the toughest part for Bilic, and one he’s not quite mastered yet, despite the win over Swansea at the weekend. But with both Carroll and Hernandez in the team, creativity can be lacking unless one of them is bumped out to the wing.
There is one way Bilic has decided that he can counter that, though. Instead of creating chances through intricate passing moves or a moment of brilliance from a player like, say, Manuel Lanzini or Andre Ayew, West Ham have played more accurate long balls this season than anyone else. That seems like a way of allowing Carroll to create for Hernandez. And interestingly, the Hammers aren’t near the top of the list for inaccurate long balls. What that means is, despite the prosaic nature of the tactic, it’s effective.
But whilst it may be effective for getting the ball into attacking positions, it’s not necessarily effective at bringing Hernandez into good shooting chances. And this is where the problem lies: if the long-ball approach is an attempt to get the ball into positions where the Mexican can score, it’s not working.
The solution to the problem, though, might once again come from the unlikely source that is Sam Allardyce.
In his final season in charge at the east London club, Allardyce experimented with a diamond formation. Stewart Downing played as the attacking midfielder at the tip, with Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho up front. In effect, this was fundamentally a strange use of Downing as a false nine: as Sakho moved wide and Carroll dropped deep, Downing was the man who exploited the space in the middle, between central defenders who found themselves in confusion.
It didn’t last very long before the wheels started to come off, but for a while there was some genuinely good attacking play, and Carroll was the instigator, creating space for others around him. And he wasn’t playing centrally: he was dropping deep or wide onto the opposition full-backs, giving him the opportunity either to jump for the ball with a smaller player, or pull a centre back out of position.
And so if Bilic is convinced that he can’t take a leaf out of Allardyce’s book and play Hernandez up front on his own, or that he has to play Carroll because of his effectiveness, then he should consider taking another idea from his predecessor and asking Carroll to provide the deeper, or wider, movement to allow Hernandez and other space to roam.
Sometimes the best solutions come from the most unlikely sources.