There is no contest where my manager of the 2014 calendar year is concerned. Just look at where Sam Allardyce’s West Ham stand as we head into 2015 – and where they stood exactly a year ago. They’d collected 15 points from 19 games and were second bottom going into last New Year’s Day; they’ve picked up 31 points in 19 this time. Yes, Jose Mourinho and Manuel Pellegrini have achieved a lot but they have also had a lot more at their disposal than Allardyce.
It will be one year next week since Allardyce took monumental stick from West Ham fans during the 6-0 League Cup defeat at Manchester City. So what’s the explanation for the turnaround? Signings which have been fantastic and a very clearly defined system which makes the most out of them.
The system is a narrow diamond, which places a big expectation on the full-backs. The two of those who Allardyce brought in last summer were Aaron Cresswell – who I always thought was Premier League class when I played alongside him on loan at Ipswich in 2012 – and Karl Jenkinson, on loan from Arsenal. Both are fast and effective but they can afford to get forward with confidence because they have the insurance of a solid defensive triangle, formed by Winston Reid and James Tomkins, with Alex Song in front of them when they do. Song has been another brilliant buy for Allardyce. The system is very well honed. Kevin Nolan and Kouyate play narrow, too, so that means West Ham don’t find themselves outmanned in midfield, while there is always space for Jenkinson and Cresswell to get forward.
Before Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan came back, you thought that Allardyce would revert to the same set-up as last season, getting the ball up to Carroll, who we all know is great in the air. But Allardyce has been smarter than that. Having built the narrow diamond system around the greater element of pace of the players he has brought in – Sakho, Enner Valencia and Stewart Downing all have that quality – he has asked Carroll to do something different now. Carroll will often drop deeper and create space in behind for Downing to run into and do damage. Always remember that when Carroll drops deep, you – the centre-back – have a major problem. You are thinking: “Do I go with him?” – because you don’t want him to turn and have a few yards to get a run on you. But if you do go with him, the other centre-back is left covering – and that creates the space for Downing, Sakho and Valencia. Allardyce has always been lumbered with the title of a long-ball manager but what we have actually seen is a manager assessing the qualities he has brought in and designing a system to get the best out of them.
But while the side and their philosophy have evolved, he has not forgotten what brought him success in the past. West Ham will use the long ball. They are effective from set pieces and no fewer than 13 of their 30 goals this season have come from headers. How often in this league do you see wasted corners that the first man clears? It doesn’t tend to happen with West Ham.
What makes them so difficult to play against is they are such an energetic team. I was surprised how quickly they started in their game against Liverpool, when they scored two in the first seven minutes. I thought they would be on their knees after 75 minutes but it didn’t happen. The way they interchange positions is critical to them maintaining their energy levels. If the full-backs get forward and there is a turnover of possession, that defensive triangle will cover.
There is no small amount of pressure attached to being West Ham. Their new Olympic Stadium will be impressive but imagine turning up to play there in the Championship. It’s almost exactly four years since Blackburn Rovers sacked Allardyce. He probably has the fastest bunch of players he has ever possessed. He is proving a lot of people wrong.
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