“The times, they are a-changing,” once quipped Bob Dylan, in a song that would be equally as fitting around Upton Park as club anthem ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ when West Ham take on Manchester City in two-weekends’ time.
Indeed, there’s something remarkably different about West Ham this season; only one clean sheet in seven Premier League fixtures, a current average of 1.7 goals scored per match and the Boleyn boo-boys that targeted Sam Allardyce so militantly towards the end of last term silenced by their club’s impressive standing of seventh place.
Statistically speaking however, West Ham’s style hasn’t changed all that much from last year.
Last season for example, the Irons played a higher percentage of long-passes, 17%, than any Premier League side. This term, their long-ball bias remains has dropped slightly to 15%.
In 2013/14, they recorded the joint-longest average pass length in the English top flight at 21 metres; this season, they’re in joint-second with 20 meters. Last year their average possession was 46%, now it’s up to 47%. And in classic Allardyce style, five of his side’s twelve goals this season have come from set pieces – the highest return in the division.
The real change has been in personnel; Aaron Cresswell, sourced from Ipswich during the summer, found twelve assists in the Championship last season from left-back – a far cry from the more conservative styles of Joey O’Brien and Guy Demel. Likewise, Alex Song brings Champions League-standard quality to West Ham’s midfield, whilst Mauro Zarate adds more variety to the attack through his ability to find space between the lines. New-look strike-force Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho have already bagged five league goals, one shy of Carlton Cole’s entire output from last term.
In terms of transfers, it’s been a revolutionary summer in East London, impressively enough at a budget of just £30million. The evolution of Allardyce’s philosophy however, is much subtler.
But another change in personnel could lead to a more seismic shift in Allardyce’s ethos, namely Andy Carroll. According to the tabloids, and certainly linked to David Sullivan describing West Ham’s £15million investment in the striker as a ‘mistake’ back in July, he’s emerged as a transfer target for former club Newcastle United – a potential saviour amid another relegation-threatened campaign at St.James’s.
Nobody can doubt the significance of his nine goals over the last two campaigns in keeping the Hammers in the top flight, or his contribution of work-rate as a lone, isolated front-man in an incredibly direct system. But Carroll’s effectiveness in that role, when fit, and West Ham’s dependency on it, encapsulates much of what the fans have grown to hate about their club under Allardyce’s leadership.
A player like Carroll can only thrive under one kind of service, and in turn, a team can only be successful if they’re supplying their spearhead in a manner that suits his natural qualities. Indeed, as Jamie Carragher remarked in his Daily Mail column last April; “It quickly became apparent he wasn’t the right fit for the club. In training, he’d complain if the ball wasn’t flung into the box – and I don’t mean from out wide. He wanted the ball to come into him from close to the half-way line, but at Liverpool that was never going to happen.”
It remains to be seen if the former Newcastle star can adapt to West Ham’s more varied style of play upon his return from injury – currently planned for the end of November. They say a tiger can’t change it’s stripes; perhaps a Carroll can’t change it’s tune.
Equally, and with that thought in mind, one can only ponder whether a fully fit Andy Carroll will convince Allardyce to revert back to his more attritional roots, likely bringing Kevin Nolan, a more debated figure than his captaincy might suggest, with it.
But that option would only further damage Allardyce’s already frosty reputation with the supporters; they’re now witnessing what West Ham are truly capable of under the former Bolton boss, a successful compromise between his requisites and their own demands, and will only expect the positive, more progressive performances to continue.
Carroll’s departure, on the other hand, would demonstrate Allardyce’s commitment to leaving the ’19th century football’ of the last two years behind him. Carroll is not only the pinnacle, but furthermore the most effective vehicle, of the Hammers’ attritional style – one of the manager’s last remaining motivations to play in that kind of way. Selling him, at least in the short-term, would safeguard the club against a philosophy that caused such divisions between the fans, the management and the board.
Perhaps that was a little drastic – after all, transfer gossip nowadays should be taken as seriously as a Harry Enfield sketch show. But the sheer fact the papers claim West Ham could be selling Carroll speaks volumes about how committed already Allardyce appears to change this season. The times at West Ham, truly are a-changing.