While it seems impossible to create a successful Premier League side without pace and power these days, sometimes the focus on physicality creates an imbalance. That’s been the ultimate problem in West Ham’s midfield over the last few seasons; Pedro Obiang and Cheikhou Kouyate offer fantastic dynamism and strength, but they struggle to see the bigger picture and can be sloppy in possession.
Although Mark Noble has proved himself a far more economic user of the ball over the years, there’s a defensive and simplistic bias to his passing game too – sideways or backwards, rather than using the ball to cut through opposition lines and bring talents like Manuel Lanzini into play.
In a relegation battle, that may not seem markedly important; Sam Allardyce and many more would argue the kind of defensive solidity Obiang, Kouyate and Noble can provide is far more vital to beating the drop.
But if the Hammers wish to escape the scrap for survival in time to give themselves a chance of making something more from this season, finding a deep-lying playmaker who can link the defence to the attack to bring West Ham’s exciting forward cast into the game is a must for David Moyes this month. With that in mind, it’s little surprise Joe Allen has emerged as one of the leading candidates.
‘Welsh Xavi’, courtesy of Brendan Rodgers, inevitably created a comparison the midfielder could never live up to at Liverpool, and as we often unfortunately do to young players in English football, Allen became something of a running joke during his first few seasons at Anfield.
But by the end of his tenure, his once-passive passing game was rightly judged as something far more technically demanding and intelligent, and since joining Stoke City it’s been combined with a real aggression off the ball and a desire to impact the game. Playing such a prominent role in a Wales side that regularly exceed expectations under Chris Coleman unquestionably helped too, Allen seemingly realising the level of responsibility he’s capable of taking in a successful team.
That’s what West Ham need more of after a disastrous start to the season – players prepared to take responsibility, but especially on the ball in tight midfield areas. And despite Stoke enduring an equally turbulent campaign as the Hammers, Allen’s individual form has been impressive during the opening half of 2017/18; alongside 2.9 tackles, 1.8 interceptions, 1.5 dribbles and one created chance per match, he’s provided the joint-most assists of any central midfielder outside the Premier League’s top six, and the same amount as Lanzini.
That extra bit of quality, and the ability to combine with the Irons’ talismanic Argentine, not only in terms of using the ball but also creating space through clever movement, could be what propels the Irons up the Premier League table.
“We can’t afford to lose a player of Joe’s quality – he is working exceptionally hard for us and we are really pleased with what he is producing for us at the moment. We won’t be encouraging any bids for any of our key players, especially not in January, that is for certain.”
The big question though, is whether Stoke would sell to a possible relegation rival midseason. While there has been talk of a potential £15million offer, Mark Hughes has made his opinions on the 40-cap international’s availability perfectly clear. It seems a January switch would require some pushing from the midfielder’s end, but earnest Allen just doesn’t seem the type.
Although Allen very much feels like the missing link for the Hammers at this moment in time, the east Londoners may inevitably be forced to wait until the summer – or seek mid-season alternatives.