Foxes, Forest and Hammers aim to match Leeds United's spark
For Leicester City, Nottingham Forest and West Ham United supporters, expectations were high this summer. All three clubs are spending decent money on the employment of high-profile managers and all three were expected to challenge at the right end of the table this season. This is certainly not to say that they won’t fulfil those lofty expectations but neither have they had things all their own way so far.
Home form has been a particular problem – Forest have two points from their opening two home games, West Ham have one and Leicester are yet to get a point on the board at the King Power Stadium. Having seen four of those six games, it is pretty clear where the shortcomings lie. On this evidence, there has been a clear lack of pace and creativity thus far as Messrs Eriksson, McClaren and Allardyce begin their first full seasons at the helm of their current clubs.
On Saturday, Leicester and Forest played out a controversial 2-2 draw at the City Ground – it was a match high on drama but low on quality and neither former England manager will have been too enthused by proceedings. The visitors were ruthless in punishing defensive mistakes but created little else, while the hosts turned in an anaemic display for much of the game before a rousing finish brought an injury-time equaliser against ten men.
Nearly 24 hours later, it also finished 2-2 at Upton Park as West Ham failed to win for the second consecutive home game. Their opening game of the campaign had ended with a cruel late defeat thanks to Kenny Miller’s strike for Cardiff and another late concession hit the Hammers this weekend. It may be worth learning some lessons from the team that left east London with a precious point.
Leeds United suffered a nightmare on their first outing of the season. Like West Ham’s defeat at the hands of Cardiff, it was a televised clash against a team, in the shape of newly-promoted Southampton, that had played in a lower division last year. Two rude awakenings. After that disastrous 3-1 defeat at St Mary’s, Simon Grayson opted to move new loan signing Andy Keogh up front alongside Ross McCormack for his side’s second trip south – meaning that Jonny Howson and Adam Clayton would face West Ham’s big-name midfield without the security of a third central midfield player to help.
The entire Leeds midfield dealt admirably with the threat of their opposite numbers, with West Ham target Max Gradel particularly impressive despite missing a first-half penalty and Robert Snodgrass responsible for the assist that left McCormack with a simple finish for the Yorkshire club’s first equaliser. While Parker, Nolan and co have accounted for Doncaster and Watford on their travels, they have fallen flat in front of the cameras.
So is it time for three of the division’s biggest names to look to another for inspiration? Leicester, Forest and West Ham can certainly look to the approach Leeds took on Sunday for an example of fast-paced, attacking football but they would also be well-advised to study the three teams promoted from the Championship in May.
Norwich City played a diamond midfield for the majority of the campaign, with Wes Hoolahan’s creativity at the tip and shuttling midfielders on either side. This was a setup aped by Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Leicester on Saturday, a formation that the Swede has toyed with despite largely relying on a 4-3-3 so far in his current tenure. While Neil Danns and Gelson Fernandes turned in excellent performances in the wide midfield positions, Andy King was largely anonymous and lacks the same creative spark that Hoolahan supplies for the Canaries. With strikers David Nugent and Darius Vassell failing to hold possession up against Forest’s strong centre-back pairing of Wes Morgan and Luke Chambers, there was very little of the same service King enjoyed from Yakubu’s hold-up play in the second half of last season. Eriksson will almost undoubtedly persevere with the diamond, but he may need to tinker.
In contrast, Steve McClaren swears by 4-2-3-1 – the favoured formation of Forest’s play-off conquerors Swansea City. The former Middlesbrough manager selected Matt Derbyshire as the lone striker with David McGoldrick supporting centrally and Lewis McGugan out on the left wing. Forest improved when the ineffectual Derbyshire was withdrawn at half time and the pace of Ishmael Miller and Robbie Findlay was introduced, becoming even more of a threat when McGugan drifted inside. It would appear that the components are in place for Forest to make McClaren’s ideas work, but it would be a surprise if McGoldrick and Derbyshire remain in the side for much longer. With holding midfielders Jonathan Greening and George Boateng largely pedestrian, Forest need more dynamism from wide areas and it is surely only a matter of time before McGugan establishes himself “in the hole” – perhaps when Andy Reid is fully fit and available for selection on the left flank.
Finally, there is the conundrum of how to get the best out of West Ham’s seemingly Premier League-ready squad. Allardyce has a big job on his hands, especially given the early form shown by the likes of Southampton, Brighton and Blackpool – all teams that have the resources to stay the distance. The yardstick for the Hammers lies across the capital at Loftus Road, where Neil Warnock fashioned the right balance between flair and sheer hard graft. The tireless work ethic of Scott Parker and Mark Noble suggests that the latter won’t be a problem but this is a side that looks short on creativity and pace, particularly out wide. In that vein, Gradel’s lively showing for Leeds was a clear demonstration of why West Ham have been interested in procuring the Ivory Coast winger’s services this summer. Jack Collison is no winger and Allardyce may be best advised to sacrifice one of the big-name central midfielders in his preferred line-up in favour of a Barrera or Faubert. On the other hand, perhaps the five goals without reply at the Keepmoat and Vicarage Road show that West Ham will have too much for most sides regardless of their tactical approach.