West Ham United 0 Deportivo La Coruna 0

Saturday, 7th August 2010
by Gordon Thrower

So pre-season is over and the real-thing starts next week. Gordon Thrower takes a brief look at the SBOBet Cup penalty win against Deportivo La Coruna and runs his eye over the squad in advance of the new season...

And so to the match described on the club's official website as "the traditional curtain-raiser to the season" a description that the FA carelessly failed to copyright with reference to the Charity - sorry "Community" Shield. There was much interest in all the new stuff that was to be seen about the place. New management, new players and new - and more tasteful - kit were all expected to be on display, though in the end only Hitzlsperger of the new boys made the starting XI which lined up as follows: Green, Tomkins, Ilunga, Upson, Gabbidon, Parker, Noble, Hitzlsperger, Faubert, Diamanti and Cole.

The visitors dominated possession in the first half though it has to be said that the midfield five - or if you prefer four plus one with Diamanti having a nominal free role - worked hard to close the space down. Chances were at a premium however. The better of these fell to the opposition with Lassad being allowed far too much space to break forward and hit a powerful shot from about 30 yards that came back off the post then hit Green on the back, the rebound fortunately falling the right side of the post for a corner.

We weren't totally chanceless during the opening 45. A run down the right by Parker ended in a decent effort that missed the far post by a yard or two. Cole also got on the end of a long ball but his control was lacking and allowed 'keeper Manu to clear.

In amongst all the new stuff some things didn't change - we looked vulnerable at crosses and Green was forced into a good - if comfortable - save from one header from Rodriguez whilst a free header would have produced the opening goal had Guardado kept it down.

There were no changes to the home line-up for the second half. Another old favourite habit reared its ugly head as our traditional failure to wake up in the opening exchanges of the second half as Upson allowed Alvarez in behind him. The resulting cross was too long - thankfully.

Though the passing had improved in the second half, the 4-5-1 line-up had left Cole isolated and the lone striker was not keeping hold of the ball as well as a lone striker needs to do. So shortly after the hour changes were made. A seemingly reluctant Gabbidon left as did Diamanti and the new boys Barrera and Piquionne entered the fray. This led to a widespread reshuffle with Faubert dropping back on the right, Tomkins moving across to partner Upson in the centre leaving a midfield three of Noble, Parker and "Der Hammer" with Barrera on the left and Piquionne on the right of what was now a front three. Der Hammer was replaced by LBM with 15 left on the clock, prompting Barrera to adopt more of a free role.

Both sides had a number of chances over the last half hour. Another free header from the visitors went over whilst 'keeper Manu had a couple of smart saves to make at the end but after very little stoppage time the game ended up 0-0.

For what it's worth the shoot-out ended up 5-3 with Noble, Cole, Piquionne, Faubert and Barrera all finding the net whilst Green made a fine save from the visitors' third penalty to ensure that the coveted SBOBet Cup ended up at the Boleyn.

So what has pre-season taught us about the squad?

Despite his South African nightmare I'm happy that Green will be strong enough to deal with the inevitable stick he will get from opposition crowds. My one concern would be our relative strength in reserve. Stech and Kurucz are both inexperienced and, ideally, one would hope to see a more senior custodian available to take over in the event of injury or suspension. That said, it's difficult to see where one would obtain such a 'keeper - as Southampton's Davies showed this time last year, any seasoned 'keeper worth his salt would understandably rather have regular first-team football than mooch around on the bench. We may well therefore have to keep everything crossed for Green's continued good health.

If pre-season has proved anything it is that Tomkins is not comfortable in the right-back role. Against Deportivo he looked ill at ease throughout the match until the substitutions saw him revert to his more familiar central role, at which point he seemed to regain all the composure he had lacked whilst out on the right. In my opinion dropping Faubert back to full-back gives us the worst of both worlds - he is much better going forward and his attacking threat tends to be neutralised by his need to defend - something that he isn't that good at. The conclusion is that we need a specialist full-back in the role - something we haven't had since Lucas Neill went. It seems likely that Ben Haim - who had a run-out for the reserves on Saturday - is pencilled in for that role with the Kiwi Reid a possible alternative. Either way I'll feel a lot happier once an established specialist is settled in the position.

In the middle Gabbidon had a decent match against Deportivo. With DaCosta not getting on the pitch on Saturday it looks as if Gabbidon and Upson might be the preferred pairing in the centre. It's easy to forget that before his injury nightmare Gabbidon was a hell of a player and if he can display anywhere near the same form it'll be a major bonus. Upson won't have to spend his life covering for the incompetent John Terry and, if we can maintain a settled defence, his form should improve on last season's.

On the left Ilunga - another one finally free from injury - looked lean and interested and if he can maintain his form he should be first choice. Daprela impressed on his few appearances last term and will provide more than useful competition if he continues to progress at the same rate. All of which means that Jonathan Spector should expect to see his starting opportunities severely limited unless, of course, the traditional injury jinx makes an unwelcome appearance.

Lots of players lots of options one would think. Much depends on the formation that Grant intends to use. Saturday's match against Deportivo saw an initial 4-5-1 line up featuring Parker, Noble, Hitzlsperger, Faubert and Diamanti as the five. As a unit they worked hard but, as mentioned, the success or otherwise of such a line up depends on the lone striker being able to hold the ball up and on his receiving support from the midfield. In that respect I'd have liked to have seen Diamanti slightly more advanced in support of Cole, who himself has much to learn in terms of hanging onto the ball until the cavalry arrives. Against Deportivo we saw the ball played up to him a few times where flicked headers might have found a fellow striker. Faubert in midfield gives a decent amount of width - though his crossing needs a bit of work.

In the last half hour the system changed with Piquionne and Barrera coming on to make up a 4-3-3. Early signs are that both new signings will improve the squad. Piquionne in particular impressed right from the off against Deportivo and, whilst Barrera took a while to get into the match, once he did he showed the sort of crowd-pleasing skills that we all like to see at the Boleyn. It is no coincidence that our better chances in the Deportivo match came in the last 20 minutes or so with the revised system so it appears that, on paper at least, that we have the basis of a Plan A and a Plan B depending on the opposition.

Other than those who featured on Saturday, there are a number of other players who may be considered for midfield. Valon Behrami was another who played in the 1-1 reserve draw at Ipswich. Official sources suggest that his lack of pre-season action has been the result of him not being 100% fit following the World Cup, though alongside Diamanti there have also been rumours of a departure to pastures new before the window closes. Assuming all are fit, Stanislas can expect to see less first XI action than he did last season, especially if the loan of Sulejmani from Ajax is completed.

Worryingly, Sulejmani came in for recent criticism from his current boss Martin Jol for returning from the close-season in less than tip-top condition. Another who may have to leave if he wants to see first team action is Radoslav Kovac who must surely be well down the pecking order when all are fit. There are rumours that someone called Kieron Dyer is also in the squad though he didn't make the squad for Saturday. We'll See. One good thing about the numbers involved is that it ought to stop any thoughts of rushing Jack Collison back from his injury prematurely - something we have seen far too much of in the past.

Cole appears to be the senior striker and, as such, started in the lone ranger role against Deportivo. As mentioned, I have a few misgivings about this. In order for him to function effectively in that role he will need to improve his technique in holding play up until he is joined by support. His first touch is often good enough but all to often he seems to lose the ball when he tries to beat his defender with subsequent touches. This isn't always Cole's fault - if the support is slow in arriving he is often left with few options. However, Piquionne was no stranger to the solo role down at Pompey last season and may provide competition for the place on those occasions when 4-5-1 is deemed appropriate.

As mentioned, Barrera can come in when playing 4-3-3 whilst it remains to be seen whether Benni McCarthy will be fit enough to lend his, er weight, to the attack. On the fringes this will need to be the season where Freddie Sears shows he is good enough when called on at this level whilst Frank Nouble will benefit from not being the only fit striker in the squad as he was for a period last season, something that will mean he can develop at a more sensible pace. It'll be a while before we see Zavon Hines challenging for a place though. Like Collison his injury was fairly serious and the depth in numbers mean that he can take his time as he gets back to fitness.

Overall, the recent signings have left us with a stronger squad than of late. Depending on transfers out - and there haven't been any major departures at the time of writing - there is more depth to the squad which should, injuries permitting, see some genuine competition for places in one or two areas. Pre-season of course can be a marvellously misleading "guide" to form - our best league season ever came after a rotten summer. However, after the trials and tribulations of last season's struggle nobody could blame us for being cautiously optimistic for a less stressful ten months or so.

Let's hope so anyway!

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Player Ratings

Robert Green
Comments to follow.

James Tomkins
Comments to follow.

Herita Ilunga
Comments to follow.

Matthew Upson
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Danny Gabbidon
Comments to follow.

Scott Parker
Comments to follow.

Mark Noble
Comments to follow.

Thomas Hitzlsperger
Comments to follow.

Julien Faubert
Comments to follow.

Alessandro Diamanti
Comments to follow.

Carlton Cole
Comments to follow.


Pablo Barrera
(Replaced Gabbidon, 63 mins) Comments to follow.

Frederic Piquionne
(Replaced Diamanti, 63 mins) Comments to follow.

Luis Boa Morte
(Replaced Hitzlsperger, 75 mins) Comments to follow.

Marek Stech
Did not play.

Fabio Daprela
Did not play.

Jonatahn Spector
Did not play.

Manuel Da Costa
Did not play.

Match Facts

West Ham United: Robert Green, James Tomkins, Herita Ilunga, Matthew Upson, Danny Gabbidon, Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Thomas Hitzlsperger, Julien Faubert, Alessandro Diamanti, Carlton Cole.

Goals: None.

Booked: None.

Sent Off: None sent off     .

Deportivo La Coruna: Manu, Ze Castro, Colotto, Rochela, Laure, Alvarez, Dioni, Seoane, Rodriguez, Guardado, Lassad.

Subs not used: Rivas, Aythami.

Goals: .

Booked: None.

Sent off: None.

Referee: Kevin Friend.

Attendance: 14,295.

Man of the Match: Robert Green.