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Dec 10, 2009

Zola succumbing to second-season syndrome

While some clubs suffer from the mysterious footballing ailment known as 'second-season syndrome', at West Ham it appears to afflict managers. The first year in the top flight brings serene progress, but the next tends to result in a downturn. Glenn Roeder was relegated in his, Alan Pardew dismissed half-way through a second top-flight campaign with demotion appearing to beckon and Alan Curbishley, perhaps aware of the unfortunate precedents, left before he could celebrate a second anniversary at the Boleyn Ground.

Now Gianfranco Zola is the latest to suffer. The Italian's first year at the helm was notable for the delights of West Ham's distribution. A general sense of goodwill towards such a gifted footballer appeared justified as Zola crafted a team in his own image, finally provided Carlton Cole with a route map towards goal and seemed to suggest that, rather than coming last, nice guys are quite capable of laudable mid-table finishes.

The current campaign lends itself to a very different conclusion. Perhaps the Premier League's most pleasant manager's team have been too accommodating. West Ham sit in 17th position having shipped seven goals in their last two home games. They are offering entertainment at Upton Park, where eight games have produced 34 goals, but too much of it has been of the wrong variety: theirs is the most porous defence at home.

Clean sheets have eluded them since August and they have spent the last two months veering in and out of the relegation zone. If the statistics are unenviable, there are signs of an unfortunate naivety.

In Saturday's 4-0 defeat to Manchester United, for instance, Michael Carrick was allowed to play his first senior game at centre back without being tested in an unfamiliar role, prompting one West Ham fan to comment that it allowed their former midfielder to look like Franz Beckenbauer. Meanwhile, Paul Scholes and Darron Gibson, both noted for their long-range shooting, were allowed to unleash several efforts before each duly scored from distance.

West Ham can cite the absence of two vital players from the spine of the side. Matthew Upson is the senior defender and Cole the physical force and premier goalscorer in attack - especially with doubts surrounding the future of Dean Ashton, who has not been fit enough to figure in the last 15 months.

Indeed, circumstances have conspired against Zola. Hefty compensation payments to Sheffield United, resulting from Carlos Tevez's involvement in the controversial end to the 2006-07 season, were compounded by the Icelandic banking crisis which forced the ownership of the club to be transferred from the formerly wealthy Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson to an asset management company, CB Holdings.

Funds have been understandably limited. This year has seen the sale of two players now excelling elsewhere in Craig Bellamy and James Collins, plus the departure of the captain, Lucas Neill, after he rejected a reduced contract. Were each of that trio still available to Zola, it is not unrealistic to suggest West Ham, who finished ninth last year, could be in a similar position.

Instead, the exits have exacerbated the reliance on Robert Green, Upson, Scott Parker and Cole. The latter is out until the end of January, meaning that goals may be in short supply. If much of the squad, including most of Zola's signings, can operate as attacking midfielders, deep-lying strikers or wingers, too few offer the sort of solidity that can reassure.

It is, perhaps, why West Ham threatened to become the first team in Premier League history to squander a five-goal lead when Burnley, who eventually lost 5-3, mounted a comeback. It is no coincidence that it was another of the matches Upson missed.

The alternatives at the heart of defence provide a neat summary of the squad: promising youngsters (James Tomkins, in this case), sadly injury-prone players (Danny Gabbidon), unconvincing but able imports (Manuel da Costa) and the odd utility player (Jonathan Spector).

And in each sector of the squad, January presents a test. Any offers could examine West Ham's need to sell. Any arrivals, it appears, will have to be cheap. Though Guillermo Franco has started to contribute, a goalscorer is one requirement; the club record buy Savio was swiftly returned to Italy while the unpredictable Alessandro Diamanti appears to have cemented the role of specialist substitute, but there is a vacancy in attack.

Zola has conceded that West Ham are in a relegation fight. The question is whether a team configured to pass and move is ideally equipped to battle for survival, with West Brom's relegation last season suggesting the answer is no. And is a manager who garnished teams rather nearer the top of the table as a player - though he was undoubtedly a hard worker - ready for the different pressures of life in and around the bottom three?

West Ham find themselves trapped in an unwanted action replay of the end of the Roeder and Pardew eras. Zola was a classier player than either and a more genial manager, but second-season syndrome may yet claim another victim.

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