Sitting here on my back patio in Virginia on what has been the first really nice day in quite some time, I'm trying to figure out what to make of the Hammers as they make their way back to the Premier League - hopefully this time on reasonable financial footing. Sam Allardyce has had mixed success implementing his unique brand of football at his various stops. At Bolton he pushed the club to a consistent level of success that they can only dream of now even if they weren't thrilled with the grinding style he used to get there. At Newcastle, where the expectations were higher and the desire for something exciting as well as successful pervaded, Allardyce wasn't long for the job. Rovers seemed to be on track to be his next Bolton before the Venky's team took over and apparently lost their collective minds.
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Enter Allardyce at West Ham which is probably closer to Newcastle than it is to Bolton or Rovers. The club is in the difficult position of having a great heritage and a fan base that expects attractive, successful football while not having the financial resources to back up that image. You have to assume that this will lead to a fair amount of tension between Allardyce's preferred path to success and what the supporters will be looking for. If Big Sam manages a mid-table finish and helps the club to transition back into a Premier League regular then he'll be in good shape. If he struggles then his exit may come quickly.
In an effort to maximize his chances of success, Big Sam has spent the last 12 months getting the Bolton band back together. They were capable of solid results when Allardyce was still at Bolton but all are a bit longer in the tooth and more expensive so it will be interesting to see if they remain capable of doing the job in the big time.
How will it all work out? Click past the jump and find out:
Quick Recap of Last Season: The Hammers, despite spending significantly, did not achieve automatic promotion. Despite a roster heavy with Premier League experience, they were dependent on a dramatic playoff win against Cardiff City to return to the Prem. The attack was the second best in the Championship with Carlton Cole, Kevin Nolan, Ricardo Vaz Te, and Mark Noble doing most of the heavy lifting. The defense was good enough but certainly not spectacular given the amount of money spent. Unlike many other clubs coming up to the Premier League from the Championship, West Ham really don't have many players who don't have a track record in both fantasy and reality that we can look back on.
What Changed: In an effort to solidify his defense, Big Sam has continued the trend of bringing in well-established veterans who have Premier League track records even if their best days are probably behind them. Jussi Jaaskelainen, Manuel Almunia, James Collins, Alou Diarra, George McCartney, and Momo Diame all fit the bill of solid/unspectacular players who fit nicely in Allardyce's "stay-at-home" defending model of success (as opposed to defenders wandering forward and potentially getting out of position). They are also similar in that they are decidedly of the physical variety. How Chris Samba didn't find his way into this group is beyond me.
On the attacking side, the only significant addition is Modibo Maiga a forward/winger who has experienced some significant success in the French first division. We will have to see how he fits into the Hammers attack and how regularly he does so but his strike rate in France makes it worth checking in on.
Real World Prediction: It won't be easy and it won't be pretty but I see West Ham staying up and finishing in 15th or 16th spot.
Fantasy Production: Obviously we don't have a great deal of information about West Ham and their fantasy prospects based on last season. We would be foolish to expect anything approaching the 81 goals they scored last season. More likely, we'd be smart to remember what we said about Allardyce's Bolton teams - never bet on or against them. They won't be as bad a fantasy bet as Stoke is but they won't be this season's Swansea either.
Fantasy Gold: If Matthew Taylor were still listed as a defender then he'd likely be listed in this category but it's hard to put anyone on this list for certain. At their "re-entry" price there are some good potential bargains but certainly no solid gold options unless Ricardo Vaz Te is ready to translate his Championship form to the Premier League but he is unproven at that level.
- Ricardo Vaz Te - The issue here is two-fold - first, can Vaz Te bring his improving form to the Premier League and second, will that production be enough to make Vaz Te interesting even at a low price when compared to other new-to-the-league forwards like Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski, and Eden Hazard (and Robert Lewandowski if the most recent rumors about a move to Manchester United are true).
- Mark Noble - He was consistently priced at between 9 and 10 when the Hammers were last in the Premier League and starting out at 6.50 could make him a strong bargain if he continues to deliver goals, assists, and take at least some kicks then he could be quite the value buy.
- Kevin Nolan - The problem with Nolan, even when he's going well, is that he tends to have significant value only when he scores. That comes about once every 3.5 matches which isn't bad for a midfielder but given that he's aging and moving up a division you have to expect that the well will start drying up one of these years. This may or may not be the year but you should remember that Nolan is one to be watched with some skepticism.
- Carlton Cole - Another one who may be useful early while his price is still low due to his re-entry into the Premier League. He is a streaky player so there will be times this season when he is great value for about a month but after that first streak happens, he is likely to be overpriced for quite some time.
- The Rest - As with most newly promoted teams, there will be some solid bargain plays early in the season in cases where West Ham have favorable home match-ups. Beyond the players above and the potential of Maiga, there aren't any others who are likely to be players you would consider keeping over an extended stretch of matches.
First Five Matches: Aston Villa, @Swansea, Fulham, @Norwich, Sunderland. The schedule opens with some potential for early points as West Ham face a steady diet of mid-table opponents. As an added bonus, their two road matches come against clubs with questionable talent who are adjusting to new managers. Given the early schedule, players like Carlton Cole, Mark Noble, and Matt Taylor look like solid early investments.