West Ham breaking Allardyce mould in all the worst ways

Club's struggles leave dent in legacy of man once thought insurance against relegation

West Ham manager Sam Allardyce, left, is perilously close to tarnishing his reputation as insurance against relegation. Stefan Wermuth / Reuters
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It is a philosophical question and a football problem: when is a Sam Allardyce team not a Sam Allardyce team? The answer, perhaps, is the current West Ham United side.

In terms of personnel, they have Allardyce’s stamp. Eight of the 11 who started against Chelsea last week are his signings.

The squad contains an idiosyncratic, but familiar, blend of Bolton Wanderers old boys, French-speaking Africans, set-piece specialists and six-footers.

They are, in the truest Allardyce fashion, accused of being overly direct. They are not the neutrals’ choice.

And yet there are crucial areas where West Ham differ from the quintessential Allardyce outfits.

First and foremost are the results. Allardyce has constituted a one-man insurance policy against relegation from the Premier League, spending a decade in the division with – a brief spell at Newcastle United apart – clubs who were neither among the biggest nor the richest.

Yet now West Ham sit in 17th place. The loser of Saturday’s desperation derby against Fulham will be in the drop zone.

As it is at Upton Park, the normal assumption is that, if Allardyce could not win, he would expertly ensure that his team did not lose. Yet West Ham have been beaten four times there already, suffering more home defeats in three months than some of his sides have had in entire seasons.

A manager who has long tried to compensate for a comparative lack of match-winners by eliminating errors has seen his side make a series of mistakes.

West Ham were winning 2-1 against Everton in September when Mark Noble picked up a second booking and they duly lost 3-2. They were 1-0 ahead at Norwich City three weeks ago when Jussi Jaaskelainen first spilt the ball and then conceded a penalty in a 3-1 loss.

The Finn was penalised again for Chelsea’s opening goal last week, though the fault lay with Guy Demel, who sold his goalkeeper short with a back-pass.

Despite those defensive mishaps, they have still conceded fewer goals than Manchester United. The principal problem is they have only mustered nine goals in 12 games at the other end.

While Allardyce’s teams have rarely been prolific, it is an illustration of the principal problem: to all intents and purposes, they have been striker-less all season.

It has forced a tactical change on a manager who has long favoured a 4-5-1 formation. Allardyce was acclaimed for his ingenuity when West Ham aped Spain and Barcelona, operated without anyone in attack and won 3-0 at Tottenham Hotspur in October.

It was a short-term fix to what is proving a long-term issue – the absence of Andy Carroll.

Allardyce broke the club’s transfer record to pay £15 million (Dh90m) for the target man, but Carroll has yet to play this season. There is no date set for his comeback from a foot injury.

While forward Ricardo Vaz Te has chipped in with two goals from the flanks, the other specialist strikers, Modibo Maiga, Mladen Petric and Carlton Cole, are all yet to score. One is a £5m failure, the other stop-gap signings who have achieved nothing.

It amounts to an uncharacteristic failure to plan and, as none can be trusted to start, Allardyce is selecting a multitude of midfielders.

Only Ravel Morrison, 20, has contributed more than one goal and, if he is the most exciting player Allardyce has signed since the halcyon days when he brought Fernando Hierro, Youri Djorkaeff and Jay-Jay Okocha to Bolton, he is also the antithesis of the embodiment of Allardyce’s teams.

Captain Kevin Nolan is a finisher who, when he is not finishing, contributes less than the other midfielders. He was booed against Chelsea, jeers that, as he is the personification of Allardyce’s uncompromising style, appear aimed in part at the manager.

The reality is that Allardyce and West Ham has always been an unlikely coupling. Yet with the club moving to the Olympic Stadium, they need a guarantee of Premier League football at the bigger ground.

He seemed the obvious man to provide that, but the old certainties are suddenly being called into question at Upton Park.