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West Ham the New Year surprise package

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ere we are at the end of the calendar year, halfway through the 2014/2015 Premier League season. How is your team faring?

No matter what pre-season predictions came to fruition or which ones seem to be fizzling out before our very eyes, there is one team that has gone beyond all expectations thus far, even surprising their loyal supporters. Now, there are a couple of teams that fit this bill, but only one has managed to surpass the meagre hopes set during the year’s infancy and climb to the lofty heights of Champions League prospects. Of course I’m talking about West Ham.

Last year, when the dust had finally settled after another torrid Premier League season, West Ham sat in a safe, albeit nondescript, position of 13th on 40 total points garnered from their 38 matches. This year, in just 19 games, the Hammers are nine points away from matching last year’s points total. Perhaps even more impressive, West Ham managed to find themselves in the win column 11 times throughout all of their Premier League games last year. This year, until the Chelsea and Arsenal games, they’d won over half of their matches and West Ham currently sit at nine wins with over half of the season left to play.

They say that for teams to feel comfortable about their chances of survival in the Premier League, the target for points should be around 40. In the last few years teams have gotten away with earning fewer, but for a team like West Ham, an outfit that maybe wasn’t a favourite for relegation but was more than likely going to be a team closer to the bottom than the top around April, they should feel ecstatic about their performance so far and even more excited about what the last half of the season has in store.

When you look at the table and see West Ham in sixth place above clubs like Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, you may ask yourself, “How closely am I really paying attention to what’s going on around the league?”. There is some truth in the idea that West Ham have sort of silently gone about their business and are suddenly vying for European football.

West Ham players celebrate scoring against West BromIn fact, it is another darling of the neutrals, Southampton, who have stolen the “plucky underdog looking to shake up the current landscape” archetype for most of the season. But the Hammers are kind of the antithesis of their Saintly counterparts. Where as Southampton is seen as a team that plays intricate football, typified by midfield maestros like Dušan Tadić and Morgan Schneiderlin, West Ham prefers to get into tackles and muscle teams around with Alex Song and Cheikhou Kouyaté.

Ronald Koeman has done his best to bring his Dutch philosophy of focusing on technicality and quickness while also keeping some of the high- pressing tenants instilled by Mauricio Pochettino. It is an attractive way to play. With West Ham, even if they are more technically skilled than previous installations, you never once get the sense that this isn’t a Big Sam team. Hoof it hard and let the big boys get a head on it. Sam Allardyce has received some flack over the years about the way his teams play, even to the point where he was a favourite to be the first manager sacked at the beginning of the season, but with the way the players have bought into his influence I don’t see how anyone could argue with the results they’ve enjoyed. And how about those strikers? Graziano Pellè has the looks of a Roman demi-God with hair that looks like it takes hours and multiple jars of wax to sculpt while you get the sense that Andy Carroll rolls out of bed two hours before a match-day, wrestles his hair into a man-bun, and walks to The Boleyn Ground. It is this foil mechanic between the two surprise packages this year that has served as a source of intrigue at the top of the table, but so far you must say that West Ham are the stronger of the two.

Sam Allardyce, West Ham managerWhen you look at the transfers in, the Hammers look to have certainly done good business over the summer. As a matter of fact, if you look past the £11 million signing of Enner Valencia, almost all of their business has paid immediate dividends. The aforementioned Song has been on song in the midfield, but we expected as such from a former Barcelona player. It is the value signings like Diafra Sakho and Aaron Cresswell who have come in to make a real difference for the squad.

Cresswell in particular has done well to slot right into the back-line and form a solid partnership with fellow defenders James Tomkins, Winston Reid, and Carl Jenkinson. The oldest of those four is Reid at 26. If they somehow manage to keep hold of Jenkinson who is on loan from Arsenal, we could see a real solid back four from the Hammers for years to come. It must be reiterated that holding onto Jenkinson is a very large, unlikely “if”. In any case, West Ham has enough talent across the field from both their new boys and the old guard (let’s not forget the likes of veterans James Collins and captain Kevin Nolan) to maintain the form that has seen them reach these unfamiliar heights.

Chelsea away and Arsenal at home provided West Ham with two tough tests that they were unfortunately unable to pass, but now the Hammers have a favourable span of three games against West Brom, Swansea, and Hull where, if current form holds, they should be looking to take at least two wins.

As for the January transfer window, who knows? Maybe Big Sam continues making shrewd bargain purchases and further strengthens an already hardy first team? In the past, January signings like Benni McCarthy and Savio Nsereko have proven that finding quality in the winter window is unlikely. But then again, isn’t being unlikely the theme for West Ham this year?

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