The revolving door has slammed shut, everyone has gotten off of the transfer merry-go-round and the rumour mill has been closed, leaving its employees to pick up their JSA. With March well under-way, the dust has finally started to settle on the transfer window and the knock-on effects of January’s dealings are starting to be seen across the league. Despite leaving it relatively late, Sam Allardyce was a busy bee bringing in several notable transfer and now seems as good a time as any to assess whether his ins have brought wins. Has Big Sam shown a prescience that belies his bloated-toad exterior?
Well, yes and no.
After terrifying fans with the ominous borrowing of Roger Johnson, Sam and co managed assuage some of these fears by delving into Serie A and picking up what appeared to be a series of promising loans. Fortunately, Johnson has turned out to be a real any-port-in-a-storm player, struggling to even get named amongst the matchday 18 recently. Other than looking thoroughly out of his depth over two legs against City, his contribution and effect on the first team as been nominal at best. Sadly, this has been the case for the rest of the January arrivals.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the Irons turned to Italy for salvation, given the historic success of Italian and Italian-based players in the East End [Di Canio, Diamanti, Di Michele, Behrami to name a handful] and the general defensive solidity that is associated with the league. Picking up players for clubs who had invested heavily in the summer and as a consequence were suffering from bloated squads, and wage bills, also appeared to be a shrewd move. The marquee signings were the hirsute Neapolitan pair of Antonio Nocerino and Marco Borriello, and they were quickly followed by another player with Naples links: pacey Colombian full-back Pablo Armero.
All of which was perceived as something of a coup by the majority of fans; these were all players of a calibre that far exceeds our club. However, despite the inevitable pomp and circumstance that followed their arrival these players have been limited in terms of minutes on the pitch: Nocerino to a handful of appearances within the last ten minutes of matches; Borriello had 45 minutes away at Villa in a game we were desperately clinging to,and not much else; Armero has yet to pull on the shirt in a first team game at all. In these brief glimpses the new boys have impressed, if not set the world alight. Nocerino has looked composed, assured in possession and positionally astute and this level-headedness played an important part in the series of narrow victories in February, even if it was in a diminished role. Borriello in his appearance against Villa he showed a bullishness and sense of aggression that will undoubtedly endear him to his new fans.
So, despite their obvious talents, why haven’t they played?
Borriello has perhaps been unfortunate with injury meaning he hasn’t fully been able to capitalise on the never-ending stupidity of the bepony-tailed one. Nocerino, meanwhile, has been kept out of the first XI due to the [and I can’t believe I’m writing this sentence, let alone with sincerity] good form of Matt Taylor in holding midfield. As for Armero, he has been missing out due to Big Sam’s pig-headed insistence on playing a settled back four due to the winning streak, despite that back four including George McCartney who has looked as wobbly and frail in those results as a new-born foal with Rickets.
So, if the new arrivals have [as yet] failed to provide the springboard for the recovery of the squad, then what has? The added competition for places may have motivated some players and their presence in the dressing room cannot be tangibly measured, but could well have had a positive effect.
The most obvious benchmark, however, would have to be the game that drew the ‘Victorian football’ line from Jose Mourinho; a manager more caricature than man who wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel himself. The game was the very definition of a ‘bonus point’ for West Ham and this backs-against-the-wall performance seemed to imbue a sense of belief and resolve into a defence that previously looked liable to collapse when faced with a light breeze.
Adrian picked up a well-deserved MotM award in that match after a number of excellent saves and if you really wanted to pinpoint the pivot on which the Irons’ season has turned, it would have to be his rise to prominence at the expense of Jaaskelainen. While the veteran Finn has been a good servant of the club, his performances had began to slip and he had cost us several games, including giving away a decisive penalty in a vital game against Norwich. Beyond this though, Adrian offers attributes that even Jaaskelainen in his prime didn’t offer: constantly quality distribution and real athleticism. The former is vital in a side like Allardyce’s where delivering the ball into the right areas with the right trajectory is so heavily emphasised, while the latter enables him to produce saves he shouldn’t, as well as compensating for the creaking legs of the back line with his pace off the line. It is in no small part then that a run of positive results has coincided with the Spaniard’s good form. He exudes confidence and has no doubt been crucial in instilling belief in his side.
Following the 1-0 loss away at Everton last time out, it’ll be interesting to see how Big Sam chooses to line up. With the good run of results coming to a screeching halt he can no longer hide behind his desire to pick a settled team. There is a wealth of talent picking splinters out of their arse that is utterly wasted in favour of several cart horses whose selection happened to coincide with a return to form. West Ham’s defensive frailties really came to the fore earlier in the season after Winston Reid picked up an ankle injury, yet he has been limited to 5 minute cameos since his return to fitness. The team sheet on Saturday will reveal whether Allardyce has been selecting on the basis of consistency, or if he’s willfully ignoring players who have been forced on him from higher up. If Nocerino and Armero are left out again, the whole situation will mirror the situation with Mascherano and Tevez circa 2006 when they were kept out of the side by the likes of Hayden Mullins and Marlon Harewood. And we all know how that worked out for us, don’t we?
Big Sam’s selection policy continues to be intriguing but it seems as though a prosperous February has salvaged both his season and his job prospects. He has a triumvirate of Neapolitans at his disposal and hopefully it’ll be sooner, rather than later, that we get to see them strut their stuff on the East London Riviera and bring some much need quality to an otherwise unspectacular side.
[and I even managed to get through this without blowing the bloody doors off]