Over the summer, West Ham owners Gold and Sullivan charged manager Sam Allardyce with the task of playing more attractive football this season. Two games in, following some deeply worrying preseason results, something like an outline is beginning to take shape. Here’s my take on the worrying issues and promising signs from the Hammers’ opening two games.
Kevin Nolan. Nolan looked surplus parts in the opener against Tottenham, and that’s despite his side having a man advantage to work with for much of the game. Perhaps things will be different once Andy Carroll returns, but you have to wonder whether Nolan’s time as a force in midfield is coming to a close. It’s a good sign that he didn’t start against Crystal Palace.
Carlton Cole. Didn’t Big Sam already release this guy? Notwithstanding his goal against Palace, Cole remains a second-rate option, and if the Hammers continue to lean on him as a central striker, it’s difficult to believe they will not repeat last season’s struggles to score.
Ricardo Vaz Te. Vaz Te looked very poor in the opening game against Spurs. Of course Jarvis is problematic as well, so Vaz Te may in fact be our best option on the left; but that’s probably not a good thing. The one thing to say in Vaz Te’s favor is that he may be moving in the right direction: I’ll take four chances created (off of 10 of 11 completed passes in the attacking third) against Crystal Palace over five missed shots against Tottenham.
Cheikhou Kouyaté. With one notable exception, the signs of promise for West Ham lie with new signings, and none have been brighter than this Senegalese transfer signing from Anderlecht. Gregg Davies lavished praise on him for his role in West Ham’s victory over Crystal Palace, but he was quite possibly the Hammers’ best player against Tottenham as well. He has completely displaced Diamé in the midfield, deservedly so far as one can tell, and looks a perfect partner to Noble.
Stewart Downing. Downing’s play in both games is promising not just for improvement, but also for his changed role. In both games, Downing frequently came inside to join the midfield rather than hugging the touchline and rattling in crosses. Crosses–and not particularly accurate ones–were just about all that Downing and Jarvis offered last season. With Jarvis apparently in the shop window and Downing quite notably playing in a different style, things are looking promising for that more attractive football ownership is craving.
Aaron Cresswell. Crosses aren’t entirely out of the picture, however, as former Ipswich Town defender Cresswell looks like a definite upgrade at left back. He looked like he might have picked up a knock against Tottenham, so a second 90′ shift against Palace was definitely good news.
Enner Valencia. Valencia only played about 10′ at the end of the Tottenham game, so any judgments must be cautious. Having said that, Valencia looked sharp and lively, and one hopes that he is only a week or two away from full match fitness. If he can move for 90′ the way he did in his brief spell against Spurs, he should go a long way to increasing the Hammers goal yield.
Mauro Zárate. No one would argue with Zárate’s stunning goal from outside the box to open the scoring against Palace. The real question–and I do think it’s still an open one–is whether he is the permanent replacement for Kevin Nolan as attacking midfielder. Clearly, he’s a very different kind of player, and if he can come good it would go a long way toward creating the more attractive football West Ham fans and management are craving. But I think we need to see more before handing over the keys. A few more starts may tell the tale.
Whether it’s just the new personnel or a new vision from offensive coach Teddy Sheringham, things certainly look stylistically different for West Ham in the early going. If Nolan and Cole end the season primarily on the bench in favor of new blood, things could indeed look up for the Hammers this year.