Reds scalp in Allardyce's sights
Sam Allardyce knew something wasn't right.
It was his early days at Bolton Wanderers and he went along to watch the youth team. There, in the middle of defence, was a tall, spindly lad. Allardyce could see he was a player but something about his positioning was off. As would soon become apparent, Kevin Nolan was much better off attacking goal than guarding it.
"When I first met Kevin, he was a centre-half in the youth team," Allardyce says now. "We were watching and he was never a defender. He was only there because he was six-foot-three. They thought you need a big one at centre-half but he wasn't good enough defensively to be that.
"But you saw the ability he had and you're moving one forward to create a new position for him. In the three [in midfield], we sort of spotted that this lad likes to get forward. He doesn't like to get too involved in the build-up in midfield but he likes to get on the end of the build-up. He likes to support the front-man and he likes to get in the box. He has a knack for that without anybody seeing him and you're thinking, 'How did he get there?'
"He's continued to contribute those types of goals throughout the Premier League as long as the manager who's had him has played him in the right way and he's doing that now."
There's no denying that. Nolan has already scored five league goals this season and, given when they've come in games and how they've decided results, those strikes have been directly responsible for seven of West Ham United's points.
Such an influence is going to be even more important on Sunday against Liverpool given the absence of both sides' focal-point forwards. With Luis Suarez suspended and Andy Carroll out injured, it seems set to be the kind of tight, tentative game settled by a single goal or moment's breakthrough.
"We've obviously looked at the situation and we're pleased that Suarez isn't playing," Allardyce says. "Without him, they're not quite as big a force in terms of goalscoring ability so we hope we can take advantage of that."
By doing so, they would also pull away from Liverpool. At present, West Ham are three points ahead of the Reds but they have almost identical scoring and defensive records. Both have hit 19, although Liverpool have conceded one more than West Ham's 17.
Beyond the absence of their main forwards, though, such a record is about all the two teams share. In fact, the example of Nolan - and Allardyce's line about 'managers who play him in the right way' - effectively sums up the differences between the two teams at the moment.
Brendan Rodgers' approach is by now well known. He has a specific template - a platform for passing football. For the most part, players are specifically identified for it or expected to adjust to it. Allardyce's set-up, by contrast, isn't just more pragmatic in style but also in treatment of players. As Nolan's early evolution illustrates, the West Ham manager is prepared to alter the dynamic and shape of his side if it means getting the best out of individual players.
"When you start working with a player, you have to talk about the player's qualities and try and provide [a place] in the team structure for him to produce his strengths.
"I always think you focus on what player's strengths are because that's what made them a footballer. Then you put them in that jigsaw, and someone can cover their weaknesses. It's all about balancing the team and understanding, like what I said about Kevin.
Another example is recent recruit Mohamed Diame. At Wigan, he was seen as a sitting midfielder. At West Ham, he has attracted a lot of attention with his dynamic drives forward.
"I think he's improved in his short time with us and I hope he continues to do that. Of course, he's scored a really good goal [against Chelsea], not quite as good as the Arsenal goal he scored so, if you can still put the finishing touches at the end to some good midfield play, obviously we'll have a very, very good player on our hands."
On Friday, interestingly, Allardyce made great play of the vindication he felt when Kenny Dalglish told him that he wanted to bring Diame into Liverpool.
The irony, of course, is that Allardyce has generally had a much better record in the transfer market than the Liverpool legend during his time back in the game. Whereas the Anfield club have struggled to properly use such as Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and the departed Charlie Adam, almost all of West Ham's recent signings have been a success. Indeed, when he speaks about it, it tallies with his whole idea of fitting systems around players.
"The ultimate scenario is to recruit from a trusted database of your own skills worldwide and you have to continue to expand on that knowledge to make sure that, when you are going into the market, you limit the amount of mistakes you're going to make.
"I think, at our level, you've got to be 75% certain you get it right. I mean, you can't get 100%. Otherwise you'd be an absolute world-beater as a manager. But you can't make too many mistakes because that would be devastating to the progress of the football club, so that's the key element.
"Our job is finding the right players at the right price that are going to play at this level of football and that's the hardest job. It's one of the hardest in football. You're judged by the players you bring in.
"Look at the impact the players have had on the ones we've brought in since the end of last season. It's early days yet but they've made a big impact."
That was certainly the case last week as West Ham tore into Chelsea with a rousing 3-1 win. Allardyce, however, believes it mainly came from the one element that has largely been missing from his team: clinical finishing.
"I think that's one of our slight weaknesses - that our centre-forwards haven't really scored enough. Everybody else has. We're one of the best groups of players to share out goals in the Premier League. We've had a lot of players scoring but we've not had anybody racking the goals up apart from Kevin Nolan."
Which brings us, again, to Sunday and the captain's potential impact.
"It's about trying to maintain that outstanding level they got last week. I think we set out a performance of outstanding ability to really override one of the top teams in Europe. And I think that, when we hit such levels of performance, it's about me trying to sustain that.
"My job is to try and make sure we don't have a dip in that type of performance because we'll need to be there at that level again to beat Liverpool."
Unlike Nolan at centre-half, that sounds about right.