There is clearly a great deal of frustration amongst West Ham about the formation that Sam Allardyce almost uniformly adopts. Call it 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or even 4-4-1-1, but the common denominator appears to be the lone centre-forward supported from the flanks and from midfield (particularly by Kevin Nolan). At its best (mostly at Upton Park) it has worked well, with Nolan in particular benefiting. At its worst (mostly in away games) the centre forward gets isolated and disengaged from midfield and it just does not deliver the necessary attacking threat and encourages the opposition to attack us.
The common complaint is that Sam Allardyce only plays it one way and does not appear to be able to change to a different formation. Invariably, 4-4-2 then comes in to the equation and the issue of the absence of a second striker on the pitch. Finally, Kevin Nolan’s selection, and his role playing behind the centre forward, is seen as a particular obstacle to the inclusion of that much extolled second striker. Where it is used most successfully on the continent, the centre forward is supported by two mobile forwards, who invariably have the dual ability to go wide and/or give support and make and take chances in more central striking positions. In the West Ham system that is the element that is arguably missing, with the likes of Jarvis and Downing attacking down the flanks and looking to deliver crosses in to the target man and midfield runners.
So, what is it about 4-4-2 that is so dear to most Hammers fans? I am sure that you would solicit a number of different responds to that question. However, the core common element would probably relate to a preference for a strike partnership up front. There is an old saying that strikers best hunt in pairs and that has certainly been true at West Ham, where partnerships such as Keeble/Dick, Hurst/Byrne, Hurst/Best, Hurst/Robson, Gould or Taylor/Jennings, Cross/Robson, Cross/Pearson, Cross/Goddard, McAvennie/Cottee, Hartson/Kitson, Kanoute/Di Canio, Zamora/Harewood, Ashton/Harewood and Cole/Vaz Te are legendary and integral to the club’s history. We are all familiar with the big man/little man combination, the target man and the goal poacher that feeds off of him. Admittedly they were not all like that though not all partners conform to that dichotomy. The obvious example being the pacy, mobile partnership between Cottee and McAvennie; where both players thrived on running on to the through ball and were equally proficient at finishing. While other partnerships such as that between Geoff Hurst and Clyde Best was between two target men in effect, although Hurst had the ability to play both roles.
However, the ‘big man/little man’ partnership is one that sticks in the memory and affections. And I also had a real admiration for the mobile goal poacher in the partnership. West Ham have been blessed with some great, great strikers in the poacher mould. For instance, Johnny Byrne, who had electric pace, beautiful technique and deadly finishing skills. Johnny Dick, who although not particularly fast, thrived feeding off Vic Keeble and was a natural goal scorer with his deadly left peg. My personal favourite was Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson, a penalty box predator, who I believe was one of the greatest two or three finishers to play for West Ham, certainly in the modern era. Then there was Alan Taylor, who although not of the quality of some of the aforementioned greats, had genuine pace and an uncanny ability to be in ‘the right place at the right time’ to conceptualise on goal scoring opportunities. Of course, he will always be remembered for those three crucial goal braces in the quarter-Final (Vs Arsenal), semi-Final (Vs Ipswich Town) and Final (Vs Fulham) of the 1975 FA Cup victory.
Most Hammers these days, will recall the goal scoring heroics of Tony Cottee. Not only the successful partnership with McAvennie, but all of his goal scoring achievements across his two spells at the club. When I think of Cottee, I automatically recall the youngster who scored against Spurs on his first team debut, the partnership with Frankie Mac in 1985-86 and the later Cottee, whose had such a fruitful second coming at his boyhood club. I recall the two overseas goal scoring wizards that was Di Canio and Tevez, both were world class talents and left so many good memories behind them. But the other ‘second’ striker that I really admired was Paul Goddard. That guy had everything, pace, technique, a good football brain and excellent finishing ability. I will always remember his goal in the 2nd leg of the League Cup, at Upton Park, Vs Coventry City. We were trailing 3-2 from the first leg and Coventry City were defending very well and frustration/anxiety was starting to grow as the match proceeded. Until Goddard received the ball centrally on the edge of the box, pushed the ball slightly to his left and tightly turned and hit a guided missile of a shot in the top left hand corner of the opposition net. It was the decisive moment of that tie and we went on to win the semi-final with a late Jimmy Neighbour winner.
It is those type of goal poachers that we miss, along with dangerous striking partnerships and the threat that they conveyed. That is probably why supporters, more recently, have identified with the Baldocks and Maynards and been critical their relative lack of first team opportunity and early transfers out of the club; it is also an explanation why many supporters sympathised with Vaz Te and his recent assertion that he is a central striker, not a wide player! For many, there is just too much missing in the typical 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 Allardyce formation. While others have no problem starting with that formation, but seek evidence of the manager’s ability to tactically ‘change it’ and revert to a 4-4-2, with a second striker alongside the centre forward. And, as I have already stated, that hostility towards Nolan is largely because it is perceived that his inclusion, and Allardyce’s apparent assistance upon playing him, is a perceived barrier to adopting a 4-4-2 system, with the deployment of a 2nd striker.
Ironically, the failure to finish off the summer transfer business with the acquisition of an appropriate striker, means that we have two fit strikers, in the form of Vaz Te and Maiga, whose strengths are predominantly playing as second strikers. While we are currently inadequately provided with a target man in Carroll’s injury absence! It is an absolutely ridiculous that we have allowed ourselves to get in that position. And it really does necessitate the signing of an adequate free agent striker to cover for Andy Carroll. There are more reports this evening that the club will bring in the Romania international striker, Cirprian Marica, who scored his side’s opening goal in their 3-0 win over Hungary yesterday evening.
Marica is obviously fit and ready to play, so the club would do a lot worse than to sign the striker as a matter of urgency. If we can sign him, and possibly Carlton Cole when he improves/proves his fitness, then we can go forward with a bit more confidence until the January window opens.