Our team-by-team 2010-11 Premier League essay-o-rama continues today with West Ham United. Last week Erik C. Kriebel did such a good job with Bolton out of the bullpen, I'm giving him a spot start with the Irons. Make sure you check out his site -- Singing with the Corner Flag.
By. Erik C. Kriebel
Since the 2005-06 Premier League season when the Hammers made their way back into the top flight of English Football we’ve seen the club go into the final weeks of the season vying for a place in Europe or fighting to avoid the drop. Either way you look at it West Ham has provided its own share of drama. Some good: finishing top half, fighting for a place in Europe, Diamante’s popped collar. Some bad: relegation fights, the Tevez/Mascherano scandal, the giant head of Egbert Magnusson.
Regardless there hasn’t been much middle ground at Upton Park since 2005.
The 2008-09 season saw West Ham just miss out on a Europa League spot to Tottenham based on goal differential. Coming into last season supporters were expecting a third consecutive year of being in the top half of the table. However, after the first three months of the season the club had taken only seven points from their 10 matches and sat in 19th place. By the end of February the mood at Upton Park had improved slightly with the team working their way back to 13th. Just as quickly as things got better for the club they soured. March arrived and West Ham squandered the work they had done climbing into 13th by losing 5 consecutive matches. From March on West Ham stayed put towards the bottom of the table.
When you look at the teams that accompanied West Ham near the relegation zone it’s quite apparent that the Hammers survival had less to do with their ability to get results and more to do with the fact that they were surrounded some terrible sides.
When you step back an examine the 17th place finish from West Ham last season it is almost as confusing as trying to pronounce their shirt sponsor SBOBET. Of the teams in the last six spots of the table at the end of the year West Ham had a goal differential (-19) that was miles better than the teams around them (Wigan -42, Burnley -40, Hull -40, Portsmouth -32, Bolton -25). Their 47 goals forward was the second most of any team places 10 through 20.
It’s a bit cliché but it comes down to the manager. Gianfranco Zola could never seem to pull the right strings last year. A quarter of the goals conceded by West Ham last year came in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Adjustments? The only thing keeping Zola in his position as manager was the fact that the club essentially could not afford to sack him.
There is good reason for the Upton Park faithful to be excited and for distant observers to be interested. This offseason has seen the club establish a new ownership group, a new manager, and a few new players (not named David Beckham).
I understand if the standard off season story line of new money, new manager, and new players doesn’t do much for you. But what would you say if I told you the Club’s new owners David Sullivan and David Gold initially made their fortune in the porn industry or that the vice-chairman is a woman who features on a British version of the apprentice and was also managing director of Birmingham FC at 23 years old? It appears this back story doesn’t get much run in the U.K. but the only U.S. comparison I could make to this was if Bob Guccione and Larry Flint decided to buy lets say the Mets and hire Omarosa as president or GM.
Despite keeping the club from being relegated Zola was let go by West Ham at the end of the season and over the summer Sullivan and Gold brought in Avram Grant.
Does Uncle Avram look the part the way Mourhino, Pep, Sir Alex, and Arsene do? The evidence available to us might suggest no. Exhibit A, Exhibit B, (remix?).
What Grant lacks in personality, emotion, and general appeal he makes up for with results. Grant just missed out on getting Israel to the World Cup in 2006 (the Israelis were 4-0-6 in qualifying). In 2007/08 after taking over for Jose Mourhino, Grant took Chelsea from 10 points back to having a chance to win the title on the last day of the season. In that same season Grant guided Chelsea to the Carling Cup final and of course was a John Terry slip and missed PK away from lifting the Champions League trophy.
Grant wasn’t done proving his ability to manage a club in full crisis mode. Grant’s best work might have come last year when he took over the chemical plant fire that was Portsmouth FC. As we all know Harry Redknapp and the Portsmouth board had been making it rain from 2005 to 2008 and the club was desperate to find some stability in the face of administration. Up against a 9-point deduction, an inability to pay player wages with any consistency, and such dire financial straits that the club appealed the FA to allow the selling of players after the transfer window had closed Grant still took Pompey to the FA Cup Final.
Grant is finally walking into a stable situation and on paper he doesn’t need to conduct much rebuilding to the side. Sixteen members of this side were on the 2008-09 team that finished in the top half of the table that combined with a few off season signings and West Ham should be in good shape to being the 2010-11 season.
No one will likely enjoy his away matches less than Robert Green this season thanks to his unforgettable blunder in South Africa. That said Green had done his part in earning a spot on the English national team. Last season, Green had the second most saves in the EPL last season playing every match for West Ham and also managed eight clean sheets along with one of the league’s higher save percentages.
While Green’s numbers were respectable last season he did not get much help from his back line. One area Avram Grant will need that will need to improve. The first step Grant took in that department was bringing in Tal Ben Haim on loan from Portsmouth. A Ben Haim/Matthew Upson pairing in the center is a decent first step in solidifying the back line that looked lost at times last season. Jonathan Spector could do his club a huge favor by regaining the form he had in South Africa at the 2009 Confederations Cup and ensuring that Julien Faubert sees as little of the right back position as possible.
Scott Parker [Ed. note: rumored to be sold to Spurs.] and Mark Noble again will hold West Ham’s midfield together but it will be interesting to see if Grant gives a starting position to Alessandro Diamante. Diamante, who I’m convinced has to share some DNA with Antonio Cassano, was a massive buy for the Hammers last season. In 27 appearances with the club Diamante had seven goals and three assists. The club also took a flier on one time German international Thomas Hitzlsperger who struggled immensely at Lazio last season and will look to regain the form he had at VfB Stutgart and Aston Villa in years past.
There could be concern this season for West Ham could be up front. Carlton Cole did manage 10 goals last season but the club parted ways with Guillermo Franco who was responsible for five goals and three assists. At the moment outside of Cole, the West Ham strike force consists of Zavon Hines, Frédéric Piquionne, and Benni McCarthy (who will hopefully used his time during the World Cup for working out and not eating).
Bottom Line -- West Ham as a strong manager and a ownership group that appears to be prepared to spend what little money they have to bring the right players into the side. The quality at goalkeeper, defense, and midfield is better than what last year’s results indicate. If Hitzlsperger can regain his form along side Parker, Noble, and Diamante West Ham could be an exciting team to watch this season.
There is still a bit to be desired up front in terms of depth but strong performances from the aforementioned midfielders could help to take care of that problem. The Hammers will face three of the top four from last season in their first six Premier League matches of the season as well as Aston Vila, Bolton, and Stoke. West Ham’s season might not be determined in the first six matches but we could have a good idea if we are looking at a team headed for the top half of the table or a relegation fight.
I have a fair amount of respect for Grant and the roster he has at his disposal. There’s a chance that the Hammers make into Europe but the strength in the top half of the table will be too much, 10th place for West Ham this season.
In case you missed it:
* Stoke City
* Blackburn Rovers
* Wigan Athletic
* West Brom