You know the old saying that, when you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail? It certainly seems relevant for recent accounts of West Ham’s new strikerless system. Since I was previously complaining about the mischaracterization of the Hammers play as a primitive long-ball game, I suppose it’s an improvement that everyone is now excited about Allardyce’s tactical innovation and use of a 4-6-0 “as he did against Tottenham.”
The problem is that, in the last two games, West Ham hasn’t done much at all resembling their gameplan against Spurs. True, West Ham has continued to play their best available players rather than hoping that Modibo Maiga will suddenly start looking like a Premier League striker or that an unfit Carlton Cole will suddenly start outperforming the fit player we released last summer. That means fielding a team with no recognized strikers, and if that’s a radical innovation, so be it.
But what made West Ham so effective against Spurs wasn’t the absence of Maiga or Cole, but the unpredictable movement in attack, making it difficult for Tottenham to successfully maintain their high back line. In the two games since, Allardyce has put out a much more stable formation, and in both cases with a fairly clear top man. Against Manchester City, it was Mohamed Diamé for roughly the first 70′, until he and Kevin Nolan swapped roles. This past weekend, Morrison was back as a false nine, the role he played against Spurs, but without the fluidity of attack surrounding him at White Hart Lane. When West Ham did attack, support most often came from Ricardo Vaz Te (until his 32′ injury) or Diamé. Instead, there was more fluidity in the midfield positioning, as Nolan was initially positioned as the deepest of West Ham’s midfield three, with Noble sometimes beside him and sometimes pushing ahead. My suspicion is that the plan was to try and leverage Nolan’s height and physicality against Michu playing in the hole. By late in the first half, however, Nolan and Noble began to swap roles (as the presence of Jarvis on the wing may have made Nolan’s ariel ability in the box more valuable than Noble’s passing). Nolan was consistently playing ahead of Noble in the second half, though usually behind Diamé, until Carlton Cole’s 65′ introduction, when West Ham shifted to a 4-4-1-1, Nolan pulling back alongside Noble in front of the defense, while Ravel Morrison played slightly ahead of them, breaking forward when possible to support Cole (Joe Cole, when he came on late for Morrison, performed the same role).
The main point is that since the Tottenham game, West Ham has employed much more stable formations, and one’s with relatively clearly defined striker roles, even if those roles are being taken up by traditionally midfield players. While it’s nice that commentators have changed their clichés with regards to West Ham, it would be even nicer if they actually described what’s happening on the pitch.