The final few games of the season can be a stressful time for some teams. The fight against relegation or launching an attack on the title or a European/playoff spot, there’s often much to play for.
But for those midtable, it’s not so important. And it’s excruciating for fans to have to watch their team play football when it looks like the players can’t wait to pack their suitcases and run off to the beach for a luxury holiday the rest of us can only dream of.
West Ham are one of those teams this year. They were on course for a European spot before Christmas, and since then they have nosedived badly, winning only one of their last six games.
To say that the fans have never warmed to Sam Allardyce would be an understatement, but actually West Ham played quite well for half a season. And early on, their tactics were refreshing and even managed to earn Stewart Downing another England call-up.
West Ham were missing their main attacking threat, Andy Carroll, for much of the start of the season. Carroll likes to play as a lone striker because he tends to drift all across the front line. He uses his height and strength to terrorise the defence and loves to move over from the centre to either the right or the left. That way, when a cross comes over, he is jumping against a full back instead of the centre back.
Without Carroll, Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho played up front. Normally when you play a diamond formation, as West Ham have done this season, your width comes from your full backs bombing forward. This is how Manchester United, for example, have been utilising Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia of late. In this formation, you’ll see the two forwards playing close together, trying to make life difficult for the centre backs who are attempting to mark them.
West Ham, however, had a lot of joy from allowing both Sakho and Valencia to drift wide, occupying the opposition full backs, confusing the centre backs and leaving space for Downing, at the tip of the diamond to come forward and provide a different threat.
This worked a treat for the Hammers at the start of the season, and even when Carroll came back he still played reasonably well in the system. He’s chipped in with five goals from just 12 starts – not a terrible return in a team that’s won only two Premier League games since Christmas.
But West Ham can’t get back to the same level without him, and he hasn’t played since February.
The confidence of the team was shot to pieces, and maybe this is partly due to the stifling of their creative approach to attack-building with Sakho and Valencia pulling wide instead of staying in the box. Maybe with Carroll walking straight into the team, there’s always too much of a temptation to knock it long to the big man up front. This is a Big Sam team we’re talking about, after all, and old habits die hard.
It looks like West Ham have lost what made them so special at the start of the season, and the players have started to make elementary mistakes. If you take both the games they’ve had against Man City this season, in the first one, early in the season at Upton Park they were wonderful and won the game, in the second one last weekend at the Etihad, they made mistakes and were punished.
The difference is confidence, and players get it when they’re playing well. And you always feel like you’re playing well when you try new things and they come off. That’s what gave the Hammers the confidence at the start of the season, but they’ve lost it now. And you don’t want to play football when you’ve lost what made it so special. So now all they want to do is lie on deck chairs with cocktails in their hands. The hopes of this season are long forgotten.