Premier League Preview: West Ham
Lessons from last season
West Ham go into their penultimate season at the Boleyn as a relatively healthy mid-table Premier League outfit, looking to consolidate and put themselves into a higher bracket once the move to the Olympic Stadium has been completed. To do that, manager, board and coaching staff need to work together to ensure further progress is made and the spectre of lower-table scuffling and a relegation battle is avoided. The club need to invest well and wisely, demonstrating to supporters and interested parties -- not least players offered the opportunity to join the club -- that West Ham United are continuing to build, dragging themselves to somewhere near their former status as a club of some repute.
Last season -- as so often happens at Upton Park -- the club again demonstrated its unerring accuracy in shooting itself in the foot (or should that be Achilles' heel?) by failing to recruit any type of attacking backup to Andy Carroll. When the striker failed to recover from a heel injury that occurred in the last game of the 2012-13 season, the team struggled -- to the point that some matches were played without any recognised forward at all. In retrospect, it was only Sam Allardyce's ability to strangle a game to within an inch of its life and a spectacular run in February that ensured the Hammers remained as clear of the relegation dogfight as they did.
Close-season signings appear to suggest a lesson has been learned, but the spotlight will once again fall on the manager. Can Big Sam, with his undoubted ability to marshal an obdurate defence and stifling midfield, be persuaded to try to combine it with an attacking sensibility? Is this even achievable as a tactic with the players at Allardyce's disposal? As ever, there are as many questions as answers at Upton Park.
Predicted starting lineup
Forwards, that's what! Argentinean Mauro Zarate and Ecuador's World Cup star Enner Valencia have been added, just in time for news that Carroll has suffered another ankle injury and will be out for four months. Hopefully, this news will see the club taking a chance on one of the many Championship strikers they seem to be continually linked with.
Although there is the feeling that sleight of hand may be confusing West Ham fans into thinking an era of Ron Greenwood-type football is about to be re-introduced -- when, in fact, not much may be changing at all -- it is nonetheless hoped that the extra cutting edge may see the Hammers venturing into the opposition's penalty area at times next season.
Also new is a return to the 1986 kit worn by the team that included Tony Cottee and Frank McAvennie; that side was within four points of winning the league -- eventually finishing third as a result of the final weekend's results -- and its re-introduction is a clever marketing ploy for a club whose fanbase is notoriously reluctant to eschew tradition. Expect huge shirt sales.
PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEWS
As we count down to kickoff on Aug. 16, ESPN FC previews all 20 teams in this season's competition. Can Burnley, QPR and Leicester stay up? Will the new signings of Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Adam Lallana help usurp Man City's crown? Will Manchester United get back on track under Louis van Gaal?
Despite promises of a more attacking lineup and the addition of Teddy Sheringham as a specialist coach, it's Allardyce's ability to grind out results when necessary that gives the Hammers their current reputation. Last season, opposition players and TV pundits were openly talking about West Ham as a "difficult team to beat."
This is anathema to some fans weaned on years of devil-may-care attack founded on principles designed nearly half a century ago, but there are few teams who can attack with impunity without a healthy input of money and the associated players that buys. The Hammers simply don't occupy that league currently. It may gall some, but West Ham's mean-spiritedness in front of their own net is probably their major strength.
See above. Very often an obdurate defence and a blanket midfield able to smother opposition and grind out a result would be seen as a springboard to survival and a healthy points total. At the Boleyn, such is the demand for attacking football that many supporters last season -- bizarrely, in my view -- stated they were happy to be relegated if it meant getting in a coach more versed in the ways expected by the Academy.
This negative view undoubtedly affected the team when they played at home, and, seeing as Sam has already stated that getting points at Upton Park is the key to the 2014-15 season, it will be interesting to see how the supporters respond. A critical, demonstrative Boleyn crowd is a major weakness for a mid-table team like the Hammers.
Another weakness is the infamous injury list. Unless you believe in the Boleyn curse, there is no rhyme or reason for it -- it has been happening for decades -- but expect lengthy lay-offs for at least three key players for a good part of the season.
Manager - ESPN FC profile
What can be said about Allardyce that hasn't already been said? A man who appears to wear his cantankerous, obstinate persona like a golden band on his sleeve. Under intense pressure from fans last season, it appeared that Big Sam's time might be up when he appeared before the board in a do-or-die interview following the final game in May. Indeed, as the board asked for time to consider their options, the media was rife with stories of who was to succeed the former Bolton boss.
As it happened, nothing changed, bar the fact that the co-chairmen Davids Gold and Sullivan demanded more enterprising football, which Allardyce indicated he would provide. It's difficult to imagine Sam will alter his entire way of coaching, though, and you have to wonder what is likely to change in the coming campaign. Allardyce will surely put defence as his priority, the board will prevaricate over an experienced boss who gets results of sorts and seems to have his players on side, while supporters will moan if the football doesn't provide more entertainment. The key element here is quality: if Sam can produce moderately successful football sprinkled with a modicum of enjoyment, then all will be well. Another pair of defeats to Stoke and Palace, though, and all hell will break lose.
The purchase of Cheikhou Kouyate from Anderlecht was a strong signal from the boss. A number of clubs were after Kouyate -- the player was the mainstay of the Belgian champions defence for much of last season -- but West Ham fought them all off.
Sam's stated intention of placing the powerful 6-foot-4 Senegalese in West Ham's central area suggests he is hoping to remodel his midfield around the player's physical attributes in the middle of the park, hopefully opening up space for deeper-lying midfield players or wingers to operate as a more potent attacking force.
Predicted finish: 11th
Expect more of the same in the Premier League, with a small improvement on last season's placing. It's hard to see how West Ham can really push on too far with their current squad but there's no reason for the Hammers to struggle either, so much may simply depend on how confidently the team plays. Last season the swagger was missing, but if a more bullish attitude can be found -- particularly at home -- a comfortable niche in the top half should be achievable. I'd be looking for eighth or ninth in the league but wouldn't be surprised to finish in the same position (12th) as last season.
Of more importance in terms of success though would be a cup final berth. The Hammers got a semifinal place in last season's Capital One Cup but were dismantled by a Manchester City side playing top-quality football while the Hammers struggled due to an injury crisis. With greater strength in depth, the nightmare of the last campaign's FA Cup third-round lambs-to-the-slaughter exercise should be avoided, and -- given the Hammers' cup record and the recent achievements of Wigan and Hull -- there should be no reason the club couldn't target a cup competition.