Pick-up Trucks

NBC’s new promo to introduce their coverage of the Premier League includes a quick West Ham joke (at 2:21).

The joke itself is more about class authenticity than football, and it’s interesting to think about what this identification of East Enders as the Marlboro Man says about our respective mythologies of class.

West Ham Fans, 1933

But the joke also points to a repeated characterization of West Ham’s current football that’s worth discussing.  On Saturday, West Ham United will open their Premier League season hosting Cardiff City.  Malky MacKay’s Championship-winning Cardiff have been described as a 2nd Stoke City for the Premier League, and the recent signing of Chilean international Gary “The Pitbull” Medel has done nothing to alter that perception.  And then there’s West Ham, who once stood for attractive football played the right way, but are now managed by Sam Allardyce, who favors effective but dull, “Neanderthal” Route One football.  Last season’s signing of Matt Jarvis not providing enough crosses into big man Andy Carroll, Allardyce has just added Stewart Downing to rain further crosses down on the opposition.  Pick-up trucks indeed, two for the price of one.

I don’t know enough about Cardiff City to judge this description of Malky MacKay’s team, having only seen them a handful of times two seasons ago when West Ham were with them in the Championship.  But the perpetual refrain about Sam Allardyce is well off the mark.  One of the frustrating things about following a smaller club is that very few commentators actually bother to watch the team very often.  This means that, even more than with larger clubs, their game “analysis” is simply a recap of what they—and everybody else—already “knows” about the team, manager, and players involved.  I doubt that many of them watched Allardyce’s Bolton much more closely than they have West Ham, but they know what to say about that team and are happy to continue applying it: long-ball, not pretty but effective, big man in the middle to hold up play and knock down chances for runners.  Will only get you so far up the table and won’t make for a lively Saturday afternoon, but will keep you from getting relegated.  Now that he’s at West Ham, add in a bit about how this may not please the fans who expect to see football played the right way.  Shake, stir, and repeat for 90 minutes.  Save the remnants until the next time you get stuck covering the Hammers.

The problem with this story is not that it gets everything wrong.  Allardyce does favor physical, direct sides with traditional wingers who can race up the flanks and cross in for a target man to hold up and/or knock down for midfield runners.  If Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan, and Matt Jarvis/Stewart Downing were the whole of the West Ham side, there would be little to complain about in the canned description.  The problem is that the lack of nuance misleads, and at this point misleads to the point of misdescribing what is actually happening on the pitch at West Ham.

West Ham Bench, 18 August 2012

First off, there’s the notion that Allardyce represents a kind of Neanderthal football.  Aesthetic judgments are always in the eye of the beholder, of course; but Allardyce’s approach to the game as a whole is anything but primitive.  On the contrary, Allardyce was an early adopter of sports science and data analysis.  Significantly, it was Big Sam’s time as a player in the States that opened his eyes.  While playing for the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, Allardyce was able to observe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization with whom they shared facilities.  “Seeing the Buccaneers was the start of my philosophy and evolvement as a manager. . . .  It was the amount of technology and backroom staff they used to service the players and to deliver the best.”  The resulting football may be direct, but it is neither primitive nor traditionalist.

Nor is his player selection focused on long-ball play, or even completely on direct attacking from the wings.  While Allardyce has brought in Carroll, Nolan, Jarvis, and Downing, he has also added Yossi Benayoun (admittedly, more than a bit past his prime) and installed life-long Hammer Mark Noble at the center of his midfield.  This season he looks to give Ravel Morrison a chance to make his mark as well.  In fact, Big Sam’s sides have always sought to integrate flair players as a part of his attack (think of Youri Djorkaeff and Jay-Jay Okocha at Bolton).  What Allardyce seeks is variety in attack, and a central target man with strong service from the wings is a part—a large part—of his plan rather than the whole.  In this, he differs from Stoke City’s former manager, Tony Pulis, who never seemed to know what to do with a player like Sanli Tuncay.

In addition to the players themselves, West Ham’s tactical formation last season is not what one would expect of a Route One team.  Throughout the 2011-12 season in the Championship, when West Ham really did look like a primitive, long-ball club for much of the season, Allardyce was working out how to make his midfield three operate.  By the end of the season, he had settled on a fluid triangle with Mark Noble at its defensive base and Gary O’Neil joining Kevin Nolan higher up.  With the addition of Mohamed Diame at the start of last season replacing O’Neil in the starting position, Allardyce had the structure that would see West Ham through their first season back in the Premiership, and no doubt will continue this season.  As the midfield three suggests, this is a 4-3-3 rather than the 4-2-3-1 usually described by commentators.  Though Diame’s size and defensive prowess apparently leads many to assume he must be lining up behind Nolan, he is usually only marginally deeper and plays a critical role in the team’s attack.  The more important point about this midfield, though, is that it places the midfield steel high up rather than deep-lying (especially Diame, but Nolan too is capable of putting in a hard tackle).  Sam wants West Ham applying pressure from right behind the central striker.  Behind them, Noble is there to pick up loose balls and to apply shrewd tackles, but more importantly to keep the ball moving quickly from defense to offense.  This is something like the role Pirlo plays for Juventus and Italy, or perhaps more modestly that Carrick performed last season for Manchester United.  There is still a lot of direct play up the flanks, but that approach is not altogether different from the (at the time) widely praised approach of Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham.  Direct and physical, yes, but tactically astute.

Beyond the general mischaracterization of Allardyce and his West Ham side last year, I think it’s also fair to ask “compared to what?”  While a reasonable person might judge this team’s football more utilitarian than beautiful, it’s hard to imagine anyone who would deem it less beautiful than the nonsense played under Avram Grant or even (sad to say) Gianfranco Zola.  Since their promotion, West Ham is playing the most fluent and attractive football they have in some time, and with a practical edge that is likely to see them mid-table or higher.  Not that you’ll likely hear it from the commentator’s in tomorrow’s game.

West Ham Tube Station, 31 March 2012

UPDATE (19 August 2013 @ 3:07 pm): Saturday’s commentators, Gary Taphouse and Dean Sturridge, did not disappoint.  Taphouse eagerly pointed out Gary Medel’s nickname and made several jokes about his future disciplinary record, though he did once add a note about his technical abilities.  He also pointed to boos from the crowd when James Collins hit a particularly egregious long ball (he had 14 in the game, with less than 50% connecting) without a Hammer anywhere in the area, adding that some of these fans don’t care for that kind of play.  As if some supporters, perhaps Stoke’s, appreciate a player delivering the ball directly to their opponents.

For his part, Sturridge isn’t one to complain about direct play with wingers providing service for a target man.  He labelled Matt Jarvis’s previous season, in which he led the league in aimless crosses, a success, and talked about how much Andy Carroll appreciated his service and that of Stewart Downing, despite the fact that Carroll won’t play for several weeks and Downing didn’t appear until the 72nd minute.  That fact led him to worry about how Kevin Nolan would possibly score without Andy Carroll to knock down balls for him (a bit of commentary no doubt picked up while watching Newcastle in the 2010-11 season).  Sturridge also clearly expected Downing to line up opposite Jarvis instead of replacing him (instead, Joe Cole shifted to the left side when Downing replaced Jarvis, thus maintaining the balance in West Ham’s attack).  To his credit, his only mention of Allardyce’s long ball reputation was to contrast that reputation with the reality of his team’s second goal, created by a long 1-2 and a deft side-stepping assist at the top of the box by Mark Noble–to Kevin Nolan.  Turns out West Ham’s top scorer last season knows what to do with a ball to the foot as well as well as with a knockdown from Carroll.

In fact, West Ham’s first goal was also created more by Joe Cole’s quality than by Jarvis’s cross, which was actually off the mark and had to be rescued by the alert Cole.  His performance was probably the highlight of the first half.  In truth, the game was not much of an advertisement for playing football the right way, notwithstanding two lovely goals.  Mark Noble’s performance was merely sufficient, with a 77% completion rate on only 46 passes.  With 3 chances created, he matched Peter Whittingham, who quietly put in Cardiff’s most reliable performance in the attacking third despite greater excitement from Kim Bo-Kyung and Craig Bellamy (Jarvis also created three chances, but only because Cole rescued his errant cross and turned it into an assist.  Even with the help, Jarvis only managed to complete two more passes in 72 minutes than Downing did in 18′).  The only player who looked like he might fancy a try-out at Barcelona, ironically, was Medel, who was commanding in the center of the park.

All passes - Mark Noble, Gary MedelFinally, it’s worth mentioning in the credit-where-credit’s-due department that Downing looked very sharp in his run out.  Admittedly playing against tired opposition who will struggle to stay in the Premier League, he looked a very good piece of business indeed.

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