The Premier League brought another exciting round of fixtures this weekend, fuelled with goals, drama and excitement. The usual pressure cooker situation of Premier League management has once again been put into the spotlight after the weekend’s games.
Gary Megson has had to face strong criticism from Bolton Wanderers supporters after a string of poor results, however a creditable and hard-fought 3-3 draw against Manchester City at the weekend could see the former West Brom man last a little longer at the Wanderers helm. However, one man who has not seen pressure before, Gianfranco Zola, is currently enduring one of the toughest spells of his career as West Ham United sit in the relegation zone with only one win in five in the Premier League after the defeat to Birmingham City this weekend.
The little Italian became an icon in English football after his wonderful spell with Chelsea, one of the first foreign players to bring skill, character and imagination to the Premier League. However, now Zola has stepped into management his fantastic personality will not be enough to guarantee him success as West Ham continue to struggle to make an impact in this season’s campaign. After a superb ninth placed finish last year, many Hammers fans would be expecting the side to push on, however with several financial problems and a long list of injuries West Ham have found the first half of the season a major struggle. Another winnable game came and went this weekend as West Ham faced Birmingham City at St Andrews, a side rejuvenated through a recent take-over – and that is what West Ham fans will be wishing upon this Christmas with a January transfer window approaching.
The Birmingham game certainly highlighted some of the weaknesses which are currently hindering West Ham’s progress this season. One of the main problem areas for the Hammers has been the central defence, particularly with the injury problems of England centre-back Matthew Upson causing the former Arsenal man to miss several key games. With Upson currently injured it leaves a lack of experience and assurance which is needed in a key area of the pitch.
Although James Tomkins is a good prospect for the future, the young central defender lacks the experience and positional awareness at the moment to be able to provide solid and steely performances. With only Danny Gabbidon, Jonathan Spector and Manuel Da Costa to call upon for Zola, West Ham are looking extremely thin in the department of experienced central defenders, something which will have to be looked at in January. Christian Benitez and Cameron Jerome caused problems for Gabbidon and Tomkins all afternoon with clever movement, pace and acceleration combining with work rate to hassle and harry the centre-halves of West Ham.
One astonishing stat from the Birmingham game was that West Ham only made 8 tackles during the game compared to Birmingham’s 21. The stat could show how Zola wants his Hammers side to play attractive attacking football with short passing and closing down rather than tackling fiercely throughout the side. However, it could also indicate a lack of fight from his side. With a midfield duo of Mark Noble and Scott Parker, tackling should be one of the main assets of the side as the midfield pair are known for being combative and excelling in the tough areas of the pitch.
Gianfranco Zola has been desperately unlucky with injuries during his time at West Ham, as well as the financial restraints which surround the club. Upson, a key player for the Hammers, has been plagued with injury since his Italian boss took charge of the club. Furthermore, the news of Dean Ashton retiring from the game will come as a huge blow for Zola as their top scorer Carlton Cole is currently out of action until January at least. His wheeling and dealing in the transfer market has come under the spotlight, the £9m signing of the youthful Savio from Brescia being the main question mark as he made one appearance before being swapped to Fiorentina for Da Costa.
West Ham should have the quality to see off other teams in the battle to stay in the Premier League this season. With seven goals to his name this season, Cole will be a key player in keeping the Hammers in the league, as well as Upson if the central defender can maintain a key level of fitness over the coming months. Zola may well be under pressure now, but the sign of a good manager is how he deals with the pressure and how he learns from it in the months to come of what will be a pivotal season for the Italian maestro.