Friday, January 25, 2013

What's behind Big Sam's bizarre Arsenal squad selection?

Those associated with West Ham United will be keen to dismiss Wednesday night's heavy 5-1 defeat to Arsenal as a bad day at the office against a team that, when at their best, can produce some sublime football. To a certain extent it would be fair for Sam Allardyce's side not to look too deeply into this one. After taking a first half lead, the Hammers found themselves trailing 2-1 early in the second half to two very good goals from Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. From there their midfielders were forced to become more adventurous going forward, leaving the back four exposed to Arsenal counterattacks. The Gunners took full advantage, scoring three goals, all assisted by Lukas Podolski, in the span of four minutes.

However, the result could be rather more ominous than Hammers fans would like to believe as West Ham fight to retain their top flight status in the final 15 games of the league. Allardyce's side have won just 1 of their last 8 league games. Only Aston Villa and Norwich have collected fewer points over the last 6 games.

Allardyce surprisingly left Mohamed Diame, Matthew Jarvis and Joe Cole out of the starting eleven. Diame's exclusion was particularly surprising. He scored a fantastic goal against Arsenal in the reverse fixture and was dominant in West Ham's 3-1 win over Chelsea where he used his physical strength to overpower Chelsea's technically gifted yet diminutive attacking midfielders. Against an Arsenal midfield comprised of Jack Wilsere, Santi Cazorla, and Aaron Ramsey, all players under 155 lbs, his physical strength and powerful running could have caused similar problems. His exclusion led to speculation he was on his way to Arsenal but Allardyce has since said he'll stay in East London.

Segments of West Ham supporters have suggested Allardyce didn't expect his side to get anything out of this game, regardless of who he started, and therefore opted to protect his best players from injury to ensure their availability for more winnable upcoming fixtures against Fulham, Swansea and Villa. Whether or not there is any validity in this claim I'm unsure- Allardyce would certainly never admit to taking up this strategy. But few would argue Allardyce put out 11 players best equipped to get a result at the Emirates. If this was indeed a well-calculated long-run strategic move by Allardyce to reduce his chances of winning one very difficult game in order to improve chances of collecting future vital points, I can sympathize. He doesn't have the deepest squad and it's far more important his side retain their top flight status than compete well in one league match in January.

However, Arsenal was hardly the only difficult fixture remaining for West Ham. The Hammers still have 6 of the league's current top 7 teams left to play. Four of those game are on the road- Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton. They also have Manchester United and Tottenham at home. They can ill-afford to collect just a point or two from those six contests if they wish to avoid a nervy last few weeks of the season. Big Sam will certainly have to contest those games with a stronger side than the one he field Wednesday night.

If instead Allardyce's reasons for sitting Diame, Joe Cole and Jarvis were tactical, I'd be curious to hear how he would have ideally expected the game to go. While you can understand his decision to defend deep with a midfield bank of 5 in front of the back four from a defensive sense, it's difficult to determine what he expected his side to do when they won the ball back. Normally teams that sit back look to break quickly on the counter when they retain possession (West Brom have done this well most of the season). West Ham however are not a counterattacking side. According to, they've yet to score on the counter this season. With ten players in their own defensive third of the pitch it was easy for Arsenal to press when West Ham won the ball back. The Hammers only option was to lump the ball forward to Cole, who was completely isolated up front. Arsenal inevitably got the ball back quickly and put West Ham on the back foot again. The Gunners finished the game with 69% possession and 36% of the game took place in West Ham's defensive third.

What two months ago looked would be a comfortable league campaign for West Ham now appears anything but. If they're to ensure a second consecutive year in the top flight, it'll be important Allardyce gets his squad rotation right. Consecutive wins over Fulham, Swansea and Villa and no one will remember Big Sam's bizarre squad selection Wednesday evening.

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