Finally, it has come to this. Grey skies, biting winds, and long, cold nights. You find yourself faced with a choice of excruciating exchanges at the family dinner table, or a holiday spent alone, looking back on yet another year of unfulfilled resolutions and broken relationships. Worst of all — the reality that can’t be avoided, no matter how much you try to drink it away — is that West Ham is in the top four at Christmas.
While Southampton has gotten most of the column inches reserved for each season’s “surprise package,” a combination of injuries and a tough run of fixtures has seen the Saints fall away somewhat. West Ham, meanwhile, has quietly gone about the business of winning games and finds itself four points clear of top-four hopefuls Arsenal and Tottenham, and a full nine points ahead of last season’s runner-up, Liverpool.
Just like a dog often resembles its owner, so does a team’s personality resemble that of its most famous fan. In West Ham’s case, its best-known supporter is arguably Russell Brand. Both Brand and West Ham are easiest to appreciate as plucky underdogs — unlikely sources of quality that are most likeable when kicking lumps out of the status quo. Everyone loves the anti-establishment, but what do you do when the rebel forces seize the capital? It’s all well and good when Brand is riffing on “the system” in his comedy bits, but what is he doing writing a book on revolution? If you’re a fan of one of the big teams in England, you’ve almost certainly celebrated when West Ham has knocked off one of your rivals, but what is it doing talking about a title challenge?
Like Brand, West Ham manager Sam Allardyce is clever and good at what he does. But neither of them are nearly as clever as they think they are, and they’re both only palatable in small doses. The sight and sound of Big Sam in a post-match interview explaining how he outwitted one of these hyped-up foreign managers is fine once in a while, but no sane person can stomach his unbearable smugness on a weekly basis. To be noticeably conceited in a league that is full of managers who are self-aggrandizing pricks is no small feat, but Allardyce still manages to pull it off. Kudos.
How did this happen? Why in god’s name do we have to talk about West Ham? Well, it helps that the teams that should be above them are a collective shower of shit this year. Arsenal is a crushing disappointment to its fans, as it has been for the last decade — the soccer team equivalent of a premature ejaculation. Everton is being reminded it hired a manager who is specially trained in building relegation-form defenses. Liverpool is wishing it embarrassed itself even further to retain the services of its only world-class player from last year. And Tottenham is more of an elaborate drinking game than an actual team.
Predictably, the Hammers’ success is built on a solid defense; only four teams have conceded fewer goals this season. Surprisingly though, they’ve also scored the fifth highest number of goals, only one fewer than Manchester United with its fancy-pants van Persies and Rooneys and Falcaos. It would be unfair to suggest that Allardyce’s teams have always been strictly defensive units, but it is something of a shock to see West Ham scoring goals (relatively) freely. It’s only been involved in one 0-0 draw this season. Whisper it, but West Ham might actually be a decent side to watch this year.
Up front, Diafra Sakho has been creating headaches for defenses with his speed and power, and the returning Andy Carroll is showing that being built like a brick shithouse is still a useful skill in the Premier League. Stewart Downing has been a creative revelation in central midfield, combining nicely with the not-nearly-good-enough-for-Barcelona-but-still-pretty-good Alex Song. The Hammers may not be playing “total football,” but they are showing that they can do more than just lump it long. Their position in the table reflects the product on the field.
With a visit to title favorite Chelsea on Boxing Day, and Arsenal and Everton coming up in two of the following three fixtures, West Ham may well be in for a slap back to reality. Like Southampton before it, its “dark horse” credentials will be fully tested by a challenging run of fixtures and a grueling winter schedule. For now, though, the Hammers have earned the right to be taken seriously. Or, at least, be talked about.