“Give the man the credit he deserves”, a jubilant Russell Brand lauded as he hijacked Sam Allardyce’s post match interview in the wake of their 2-1 victory over Man City.
Teetering on the sack for much of last season, there’s something immensely satisfying about seeing Allardyce steer his side to such incredible heights this season in the face of such rugged adversity the year before. And for all of the plaudits that Ronald Koeman has taken in leading Southampton so successfully, Allardyce has out-done him without being able to call upon the fruitful products of an outstanding academy.
The purpose of this article is to not pick into Allardyce’s weaknesses and exacerbate them, more just to bring some rational around the debate surrounding their season prospects. As usual, many people have gotten carried away with the idea that they’ll finish in the top four, blinded by the temporary euphoria of the moment. That won’t happen in any circumstance.
Allardyce has tactically been innovative, and this time he’s been rewarded. Last year, in the absence of a fit striker, he resorted to playing Kevin Nolan as a false nine. The innovation, although never intended, was a categorical failure – Nolan was incapable of playing such a complex role. But the diamond pursued this season has been extremely effective. Alex Song has proved why he earned a moved to Barcelona in the first place – he’s fantastically mobile and robust in defence, screening those behind him.
Moving Stewart Downing to the sharp end of the diamond that has also reaped unexpected rewards. He’s always been the victim of unfair hyperbolic criticism, and he’s revelled in being empowered with a central role. His performance versus Liverpool earlier on this season, where he man marked Steven Gerrard out of the game before sprinting past him on the counter was seriously impressive.
True, they’ve played exceptionally, and if they’ve managed to get to Christmas and stay in fourth then its not inconceivable to see them replicate that form for another five months. But Premier League seasons always balance out as they’re intended to.
Still, point taken. West Ham are a good team. But finishing in the top four after a 38 game season demands a mental capacity and quality that they lack compared to Arsenal, Spurs and Everton. Allardyce may steer them to fifth, but not fourth, because one of those other teams – almost certainly Arsenal – will use their experience to leap-frog them.
Wenger may have his doubters, but if you look at his reign, he always achieves top four superiority. Sometimes he starts well and fades, other times Arsenal start badly and come strong at the end. This season is taking the latter of those trends and, just like Sir Alex Ferguson’s many Manchester United teams, Arsenal and Wenger will hit outstanding form come March if they need to.
It’s never too late to overturn points deficits. It’s remarkably easy for people to be short sighted, caught up in the moment of a victory. A 38 game season always balances out, seemingly unassailable point deficits can be made up from as late as April (Manchester City’s first title victory, for example). Even if Allardyce maintains this great form well into the New Year, they’ll slow eventually.
The African Cup of Nations will temporarily steal Alex Song, Diafra Sakho and Cheikou Kouyate in January, key components of Allardyce’s diamond. West Ham lost three of their opening first four games when Song didn’t play at all and Sakho featured just once. Andy Carroll is in decent form but might pick up a knock at some point. The cracks will appear when the business end of the season rears its troublesome face.
In 16 of the 22 completed Premier League seasons, one of the fourth placed teams on Boxing Day has dropped out. While the aforementioned analysis may have seemed almost arbitrary, devoid of hard statistical evidence, West Ham will definitely be the team that uphold that trend.