Champions-elect Manchester United got a familiar taste of what awaits them next year on Wednesday night at Upton Park. Blood, guts, thunder, all dispensed by the opposition in the hope they can claim the biggest domestic scalp of them all. West Ham came close, in the tight, intimidating setting of Upton Park. Modernism dictates they will have to leave the historic ground to progress, but as the famous bubbles blew out to a stadium that was nearly shaking as Mohamed Diame curled home a superb 20-yard effort for 2-1, it was clear. West Ham are going to miss this place.
Robin Van Persie managed to salvage a point for the visitors who knew they had just been in a battle. Despite United’s impressive recent record in this area of north east London, this game became their fifth consecutive visit without defeat, Upton Park had provided the back-bone for the success of their first season back in the Premier League. Consolidation has been the aim and their seven home wins, including the thrashings of QPR, Southampton, West Brom and Chelsea, has achieved 21 of their 39 points which has earned the Hammers looking at a respectable mid-table finish.
On the balance of play in a pulsating contest, a point shared was arguably a fair result, yet Sam Allardyce chose to blame the officials, more specifically Harry Lennard, for denying his side victory as Van Persie appeared to be offside as he turned home the rebound of Shinji Kagawa’s effort via the run of both posts. Allardyce has since, surprisingly, escaped punishment for his comments and he will be left, with safety secured, trying to guide his side to the highest possible finish. Perhaps he can focus on tightening up a porous defence that shipped its 47th goal of the season to Van Persie and has been operating in front of Jussi Jaaskelainen, the league’s busiest goalkeeper who headed into the tie with Manchester United on 138 saves for the campaign.
It is a surprising statistic for a side that usually lines up with two holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 system, Diame and Mark Noble are normally charged with the role of protecting a back four that is patrolled by Guy Demel, James Collins, Winston Reid and Joey O’Brien. It is a physical, imposing base in-fitting with the Big Sam stereotype of strong, well-built defenders on which he has forged his pragmatic reputation when over-achieving with Bolton and Blackburn. Organised, solid, well-drilled are the adjectives associated with Allardyce’s philosophy, and it maybe explains the restriction on ambition that has been so evident away from home. In contrast to their impressive record at Upton Park, only 3 wins have been notched on the road with just ten goals scored. Only Stoke have a sparser tally in front of goal away from home.
The attacking line of Matt Jarvis, Ricardo Vaz Te and Andy Carroll showed how potent they could be as a trio against Manchester United on Wednesday, all playing a role in Vaz Te’s opening goal whilst Carroll’s peerless aerial strength proved a handful for Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand all night long. Carroll got his first assist of the season but has created 26 chances for his team-mates over the course of his 19 appearances. He has 6 goals to his name, but only 2 have come away from home, where he often appears isolated as midfield runners are unwilling to abandon the rigidity of Allardyce’s usual system that places an emphasis on containment.
Carroll’s influence on Wednesday has again raised the possibility of West Ham making his temporary deal permanent from Liverpool in the summer and that will be one of the issues, as well as the anaemic performance in front of goal when on the road, that will occupy Allardyce’s thinking over the off season, that is if he is kept on as boss for another campaign.
The ex-Bolton boss has done a superb job in the capital, first taking the Hammers up from the Championship and then solidifying their place back in the top league, yet speculation remains over the 58 year old’s future with his contract up in the summer. The manager has been bullish over the prospects of signing a new deal, but the ownership triangle of Karen Brady, David Sullivan and David Gold are said to be secretly reluctant to persist with the pragmatic style that Allardyce seems to be unwilling to deviate from.
The frustrating contrast has appeared so clearly this week as the Hammers went from an unambitious, disciplined performance at Southampton on Saturday, to a high-octane, adventurous performance against Manchester United on Wednesday. It could be argued, together with the FA Cup tie where Robin Van Persie netted another late equaliser at Upton Park, that had West Ham not been too contented to sit back and defend their lead, they may have recorded two home wins over the potential champions this year. Yet, as the manager blamed the linesman for his failure to do so in Wednesday’s league game, the argument became perfectly relevant; the Allardyce style extends rarely beyond the effective and it seems to be holding West Ham back on the field as they strive for progress off it.
Manchester United left Upton Park on Wednesday a step closer to the Premier League title and in doing so left behind an opposition that is heading for a possible transition. Allardyce can serve up the entertaining brand of football he did here, but he can just as easily serve up the turgid, bland style he has threatened to become synonymous with in the past. It is up to the owners to decide whether they want a manager who can take West Ham up to the level they are aiming for.