Filed: Thursday, 30th August 2012
By: Callum Hurley
Admittedly, I'm not sure this is a problem that has plagued philosophers for centuries, nor will the answer win the next Nobel prize, but it's certainly an issue that needs addressing. In our current formation, we allow for three central midfielders, two wide men, and a target man as striker. So how do you pick three from a central midfield roster that is oozing with quality?
With last season's departure of the talismanic Scott Parker, it seemed this area could prove a problem in the rebuilding work of Sam Allardyce. However, the co-chairmen, David Gold and David Sullivan, saw fit to reinvest the transfer fee, and sizeable wage (especially for a Championship club) in the industrious Kevin Nolan, who was promptly made captain.
This was a clear statement from the owners that we had no intention of staying in the division for more than a year and this faith was repaid, thanks in no small part to Nolan's goals. As captain, and with the experience and goalscoring threat that Nolan provides, he seems to be the stalwart of Big Sam's first eleven.
However, whilst Nolan brings a vast skill set to the team, he, like any other player, has his limitations. His preference is to advance into the final third as often as possible is the reason he scores such important goals, however this can at times leave his tracking back to be a little suspect. Of course, playing as the head of a central midfield triangle means that Nolan will have at least one more defensive minded player behind him. Although therein, it seems, lies the problem: there are more candidates than there are positions.
Nolan's principal partner last year, whether the centre midfield was a two or a three, was the ever-present Mark Noble. Noble's combination of ability, work-rate and 'local boy' status have made him probably the most popular player amongst the fans, and his improvement last year was staggering. In a season that saw him named in the Championship team of the year, he deservedly won the coveted 'Hammer of the Year' award for what was undoubtedly his finest season at the club, which proved very fitting for the club's longest serving player.
Besides settling into a more defensive role by making great strides in his tackling, Noble's ever-improving abilities from set-pieces, including a fantastic penalty record, have made him an invaluable asset to the team. Recent rumours of a move to Fulham are sure to be greeted with trepidation from the fans, who will not want to see a fantastic player, and fan favourite, leave the club.
As impressive as this duo was last season, a promotion to the Premier League will invariably bring quality signings that create a high standard of competition for many positions, and in our case it seems the midfield has been strengthened the most. Whilst the exciting signing of Matt Jarvis proved costly for the club, Sam Allardyce's legendary transfer acumen has been lauded again with the acquisitions of Mohammed Diame and Alou Diarra.
Diame, signed on a free transfer from Wigan, is a hugely underrated player and is the epitome of what Big Sam likes in his team. He is strong, confident and enjoys having the ball at his feet, as well as having incredible stamina, and an engine that allows him to seemingly run all day. This was demonstrated fantastically on his debut against Aston Villa, in which Diame looked a constant threat with the ball, as well as pressing so quickly that it placed a perpetual pressure on the Villa midfield to distribute the ball quicker than they would like.
This element of Diame's play is complimented perfectly by Noble and Nolan, the former's style allowing him to get forward if the opportunity presents itself, and the latter meaning that he doesn't have to force himself forward if he doesn't perceive there to be an opportunity. In theory, this trio could be perfect for the stability the club is trying to achieve at the moment, as they could be instrumental in grinding out victories in tough games, as well as protecting slender leads. However, in reality, one injury or poor form could disrupt this, which is why Big Sam brought in another option.
The other option is indeed a star in his own right; Alou Diarra is not only a player with 41 international caps, but was also Laurent Blanc's preferred choice as captain, and featured in all of France's Euro 2012 fixtures. At 31, Diarra may be around his peak for a midfielder who plays in his more defensive role, and has the experience and ability to cover for centre-back in a crisis.
A tremendous player signed for a bargain £2 million from cash-strapped Marseille, Diarra's international and Champion's League experience could prove pivotal when it comes to fixtures against bigger teams, and could prove vital in aiding some of the younger players. But the question remains, if Diarra is to play, which of the aforementioned trio is out? Does Diame suffer as the new arrival? Noble, who occupies Diarra's preferred position? Or would Big Sam push Diame further forward, for his increased work-rate compared to Nolan? Many questions with no straightforward answer, especially when you add a fifth variable.
The fifth piece of the three-pieced jigsaw is the seemingly forgotten man, Jack Collison. After barely featuring in pre-season, mostly due to injury, the Welsh international may be set for a year with limited opportunities unless he can prove his fitness in training. Collison has had an unfortunate career with injuries, which has hampered the progression that his enormous potential promised (so much potential that he and other academy product Mark Noble were, at one time, drawing comparisons to a young Joe Cole and Michael Carrick). Despite this, he was truly instrumental in last year's playoff charge, particularly in both legs of the semi-final against Cardiff.
After spending much of the season unable to really cement a position, and being tried in many, his performances alongside Nolan and Noble at the back end of the season is a large factor in why we continue to play with a three-pronged central midfield. Certainly, everyone at West Ham would like to see Collison succeed, after a career that has seen constant injury and personal tragedy, as his ability and work-rate, like Noble, have seen him become a fan-favourite. If he can rediscover his form then maybe he can turn Big Sam's selection headache into a selection migraine.
I can imagine that Sam Allardyce is delighted with this particular dilemma, as he has five top quality midfielders, each of whom could comfortably cement a place in a similar Premier League team. Undoubtedly, all five possess the quality and varied abilities to play together, so it seems Sam can afford to base his selection purely on form and performance. So, it seems we can afford to have a very optimistic outlook, at least in one area of the pitch.
Plus, I can think of worse dilemmas to be in, like choosing between Andy Melville and Darren Powell at centre back...
Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.
12:34PM 31st Aug 2012
''you forgot to mension Gary O'Neil who has been excellent since arriving considering he has a foot injury that would keep most out for a year. It's easy to think of big time Charlies before the hard working honest ones.''
09:06AM 30th Aug 2012
''For me, 4-2-3-1 is our strongest formation; Diarra and Diame forming the base. I didn't like Diame as an advanced midfielder. Chasing the ball, better at reading the game. Jarvis isn't going to be dropped nor Nolan. Noble isn't suited for spare spot. Vaz Te or least someone with pace.
I like Noble but I can't see him playing much.''
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