West Ham's surprising start down to imposing play from Sakho, Valencia
In a league where money increasingly and inexorably tells the final story each May, we're still at a point in the Premier League season where hope for something different lives. And while Southampton, rightfully so, has been the outsider generating the most conversation in these still-early days, there's another surprise side currently sitting in the Champions League places, too.
No, West Ham United almost certainly won't still be there after another 29 matches, but the Hammers' story is one worth telling in light of their 2-1 win over defending league champion Manchester City on Saturday.
For a club with some storied history -- several of the stars of England's 1966 World Cup-winning team were West Ham players -- the last couple of decades have seen large swaths of instability in East London. A slew of managers came and went and the club was relegated and promoted multiple times, The highly controversial signings of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano in January 2008 ended up saving them (for three more seasons, anyway) from another relegation, but the deals also earned the club a massive fine for their rules-stretching.
With the club in the Championship, current manager Sam Allardyce was hired in 2011 and led the Hammers back up to the top tier on the first try. After a decent first campaign back, last season was very mundane. Allerdyce is a noted Route 1 practitioner (even though he was a very early adopter of analytics in the sport) and last year's side played boring and often ineffective soccer. They scored barely a goal per match, with club-record signing Andy Carroll scoring just twice after inking a deal worth approximately $25 million.
The Hammers ultimately finished in 13th place on 40 points. That's two fewer than the record 42 they were relegated with in 2003, meaning that the club avoided relegation principally because there was a handful of teams even worse than they were. A rethink was needed, and this past summer, the club added two strikers from somewhat atypical sources.
The more fancied of the two is Enner Valencia, an Ecuadorian international who has had a very big 2014. After transferring from home-country club Emelec to Pachuca of Liga MX, he scored 18 total goals in 23 appearances for the Mexican side. He then went to the World Cup in Brazil and scored three times in the group stage for Ecuador before signing a five-year deal with West Ham.
Valencia is a force both off and on the ball, and he can do crazy things with it. Like, this, for example, in a recent international friendly against the United States:
Or this inhuman (and inhumane) blast against Hull City in league play:
So, yeah, there's ample reason Valencia's name led every season preview, and why he brought increased hope for both quality and watchability. While he's been plenty good so far, though, his goal scoring has been overshadowed by new strike partner Diafra Sakho, a Senegalese player imported from France after helping lead Metz to consecutive promotions back to Ligue 1 over the past two seasons.
Sakho didn't come with anything like Valencia's pedigree. He actually went scoreless in 16 starts for Metz and US Boulogne (on loan) in France's second division as recently as 2011-12. He then ran roughshod over the country's third division the following season, and that scoring translated back to the second tier, where he had 20 goals in 37 starts last season. He never even played in France's top flight before he signed with the Hammers, and all he's done now is score in his first six Premier League starts, setting a league record.
The combination of the two has totally re-energized West Ham. The scoring helps, but as Adam Bate (@ghostgoal on Twitter) lays out in this Sky Sports column, it's the duo's physicality and willingness to run and press that has had massive implications for West Ham.
Allerdyce's teams are never going to be high-possession sides, nor will they complete a huge number of passes because of the number of long balls they attempt. What they have been able to do this season is win more than their fair share of aerial duels, and also pin opponents deeper in their own end and create turnovers with their strikers' relentless pressing.
Per WhoScored.com, West Ham has actually spent the league's fourth-highest percentage of time in the opposition's third of the field (behind Arsenal, Manchester City, and, shockingly, Burnley), and they're on the low side in time spent in the middle third (e.g. long balls).
A lot of this stems from the work rates of the two strikers. According to the Opta stats cited in that article, Sakho has completed at least 68 sprints in every league match he's started this season, and had 98 against Liverpool, the most in the Premier League this season. Valencia hasn't been quite as prolific, but he's also busting plenty of guts both attacking and defending.
All of the duo's strengths manifested themselves in the last two wins (at Burnley and vs. Manchester City), where four of West Ham's five goals came via headers, and all five were scored or assisted by either Valencia or Sakho. They have been nice goals, too, all coming from crosses and finished with aplomb. That said, the Hammers haven't totally abandoned their roots; they still are co-league leaders with six goals off set pieces, including the final goal in the 3-1 win at Turf Moor.
While it remains improbable that this placement will hold -- and the Hammers will be tested immediately if Sakho is out for a month after injuring his shoulder against City -- they could be in the mix longer than you'd expect. West Ham doesn't play one of the big clubs in the league again until Boxing Day (Dec. 26). Things likely will come acropper when the calender turns -- the Hammers already have played Tottenham, City, Liverpool and Southampton at home, meaning return trips await -- but their strikers' qualities aren't going to go away, even if Sakho's incredible goal-scoring run will end, even when he returns to the pitch.
So, enjoy this however long it lasts. While most of the fussing in London emanates from the west and north sides of town, there's something compelling cooking in the east. It's a Sam Allardyce side that's good ... and also good to watch.