West Ham have had a sensational start to the season under new manager Slaven Bilić, and are set to provide Norwich with their toughest test yet. So how’s it all gone so right? Dan Brigham finds out from journalist and Hammers fan John Stern
Dan: Hello John. So West Ham sit in third, behind only the two Manchester sides. You're currently the pride of London (although I suspect most West Ham believe that to always be the case). Wins over Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City have made it a pretty staggering start to the season. You're going to win the Premier League, aren't you?
John: Ha. Well, at least a Champions League place seems nailed on! This season is the 30th anniversary of West Ham's best ever top-flight finish – third behind Everton and Liverpool with Tony Cottee, Frank McAvennie et al – and the club have been ramping up the retro over the first month or two of this campaign. Seems like the current lot have been inspired – even though I doubt most of them would spot Alan Dickens in a line-up.
If the 'West Ham Way' really does exist, then this is pretty much it – playing sensationally and surprisingly against decent sides but slipping up inexcusably against lesser opposition, such as Bournemouth and Leicester (twice). How bad must Newcastle be (our only home win)?
I guess teams do play in their manager's image – Sam Allardyce's West Ham was tough, and solidly successful, but often grim to look at whereas Bilić’s side have been at times breathtakingly brilliant but also maddeningly, and madly, inept.
Dan: Ah yes, 1985-86, which I'm sure any football fan will tell you was the season Norwich bounced back to the top division as champions following a season away. Also, West Ham had even more luck against Newcastle that year – beating them 8-1 at Upton Park with a hat-trick from Alvin Martin (against three different goalkeepers, including Peter Beardsley).
Were you giddy with excitement when Bilić was announced as West Ham's manager, or fearful that it had been Allardyce alone who had been keeping West Ham in the Premier League, and that all those bubbles were about to burst?
John: There is a huge amount of affection for Bilić from his relatively short spell at Upton Park as a player but I thought the timing made little sense. Allardyce never pretended to be anything he wasn't and the first half of last season was a major improvement – good signings (let's not get into whether they were his signings or not) and good football. Granted, the second half of the season was a wash-out and seemed to turn on the tame concession at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day when he rested one or two key players ahead of a home clash with Arsenal – both matches were lost.
Bilić’s appointment felt like a 'careful what you wish for' moment and it may yet still prove to be but it's been a fun start. The departure of Kevin Nolan was inevitable and correct and the recent appointment of Mark Noble as club captain feels proper.
Dan: Isn't it true West Ham refused to sing Allardyce’s name? The last time Norwich met West Ham, it was Allardyce and Chris Hughton in the dug-outs, which probably wasn't the kind of clash the Premier League's sponsors had in mind when signing over their millions of pounds. Bilić vs Alex Neil may at least produce a few more goals and football that isn't straight out of the Graham Taylor Handbook Of 1980s Football.
Those two home defeats for West Ham (and when did Upton Park become the Boleyn Ground again?) have given hope to Norwich fans slightly terrified of facing your lot after the win over Manchester City. Is there a difference in the way the team plays at home to away – perhaps there's less emphasis on counter-attacking at home, which seems to suit the strong, quick attacking players West Ham have?
John: Yes, to the best of my knowledge, we were 'West Ham's claret and blue army' and never 'Big Fat Sam's claret and blue army' or whatever.
Regards the Upton Park/Boleyn nomenclature, I guess it's part of Karren Brady and Co's retrospective land-grab of the club's history just as they, er, leave the ground for the Olympic Stadium (see 'Moore Than a Club' branding everywhere). I've always known it as Upton Park but that's the area/tube stop rather than the ground's name. To be fair, I don't have a problem with a club promoting it's heritage even if it does look painfully cynical at times – and perish the thought West Ham could be accused of living in the past.
The home-away disparity is a very curious thing. The defeat to Bournemouth was notable for some comedy (I wasn't laughing) defending, particularly from Aaron Cresswell who has generally been outstanding. As if by magic, Big Sam was on MOTD that night. “They didn't make mistakes like that when I was there,” he chuckled sadistically. And he was right. The wins at Arsenal and City, less so Liverpool, involved massive backs-to-the-wall efforts and outstanding goalkeeping from Adrian so this probably isn't a plan for future success.
Bilić is clearly a fan of a more open style and the players, particularly the defenders, are probably still getting used to that. Away from home, under siege, I guess instinct takes over and having taken the lead – and indeed been two goals up in all three of those big victories – the match just becomes a battle of will as much as anything else.
I also wonder if some of the newer, attacking players feel extra incentive to show off their talents against big clubs. The fact is, that regardless of where West Ham finish, to have ticked off three potentially horrific nul-points away games with such aplomb so early in the season is a real bonus.
Dan: Big Sam has, much to my horror, been pretty good on Match of the Day. It's almost as if he knows what he's talking about when it comes to football – which isn't the impression you always get with another former West Ham manager, Harry Redknapp. Can't seem him in the studio for long though – not with Dick Advocaat surely not too far off losing the Sunderland job.
So, to the uninitiated Norwich fan, which players have come in for West Ham this year, and who should we be looking out for as the main threats? Seems from afar that there were a few grumblings among West Ham fans about the transfer window until a splurge in the final 24 hours, when some quality signings were made and Matt Jarvis was shipped out on loan to Norwich...
John: Over the course of the summer West Ham signed pretty much a whole team of new players, including four on deadline day. Most of them have appeared at some point this season, including the Ireland keeper Darren Randolph who did really well at Anfield in particular when Adrian was suspended. The most exciting signing has been Dimitri Payet, a French international born on the island of Reunion. He's 28 and it remains something of a mystery why a bigger club – we signed him from Marseille – hasn't come in for him. He plays at No.10 behind Diafra Sakho in Bilić’s 4-2-3-1 and looked red hot right from the off against Arsenal at the start of the season. He's skilful, smart and looks to have a real hunger. Scored twice – the first was a side-footed top-corner beauty – against Newcastle.
Other side of him against City were, on the left, Victor Moses, who must be on to his millionth loan spell out of Chelsea. He's looked really sharp too and scored the opener at the Etihad. And the on the right is Manuel Lanzini, a young Argentinian attacker who is apparently on loan from a club in the UAE (probably best not to ask).
Nikica Jelavić almost scored with his first touch for the club against City and seems to me a very useful bench player at the very least. And the big fella, Andy Carroll, is back but don't blink or he'll get injured again. He started in the League Cup defeat to Leicester on Tuesday and said he felt "fantastic". It'll be interesting to see how Bilić uses him if he has a sustained run of good health. He doesn't naturally seem to fit into the new style.
Dan: Payet looks an especially good signing (although clearly he is no Wesley Hoolahan) and the thought of him up against our centre-backs is giving me mild palpitations. That's a hell of a new attacking front four West Ham appear to have (as well as Michail Antonio from Nottingham Forest, who I was really impressed with last season) – fast, numble and skilful. Allardyce must be disgusted.
Surely there must be some hope for Norwich? How's the back looking? Winston Reid seems to be one of the most under-rated centre-backs in the Premier League (didn't you struggle while he was out injured last season, or have I imagined that?), while Cresswell must be on the verge of the England team despite a) signing from Ipswich and b) his two slip-ups against Bournemouth. The holding midfield options appear to be pretty varied as well, don't they? Surely there has to be a weakness somewhere throughout that team...
John: I've heard good things about Antonio too from Forest fans and other Championship watchers. In terms of hope for Norwich, well, there's always an unreasonable amount of expectation on West Ham at home, which can only increase in current circumstances. I'd imagine you'd have to soak up a fair bit of pressure but if you can disrupt the midfield and isolate Sakho then that will surely frustrate. Reid is outstanding and was immense against City. Adrian likewise.
I like both the full-backs but I think there was a slight insecurity about the way they were supposed to be playing against Bournemouth and Leicester. Not so against Newcastle where we just looked very comfortable throughout the game. Noble's centre-mid partner has changed game on game, it seems, so there might be a pressure point there even if individually the players who slot in there are very strong. This feels like a game that West Ham should win if they're serious about being, say, a top-eight team this year but who knows?!
Dan: Hm. So you're not giving us too much hope then – although that's quite interesting about the full-backs. I wonder if this West Ham team is more suited to counter-attacking, so the full-backs don't know how high to push at home and are better on the counter away from home. A straw to clutch to, especially as our away record is so good under Neil, with only one defeat.
So, let's finish this off with three quick questions:
Where do you think West Ham will finish this season?
Where do you think Norwich will finish this season?
What's your score prediction for Saturday?
John: Yeah, I think you could be right about the full-backs, We'll see. I'm going to go for a fence-sitting 2-2 draw. I reckon West Ham will finish 8th and Norwich – how about 15th?
Dan: Cheers John! I’ve been very impressed by West Ham, and reckon they could be looking at a top six finish. Not massively convinced by your striker options, but you have so much creativity, power and pace in midfield, as well as a really solid defence, that I don't think that'll matter. It may of course come down to how good Bilić really is, and I'm not sure how much depth you have if you lose Payet or Moses through injury for any amount of time, but your lot and Palace probably had the best transfer window by quite some distance.
Think this is the first time I’ve predicted a Norwich defeat this season, but I’m going 2-1 West Ham. Expecting a good game though.
John Stern is editor-at-large of All Out Cricket and writes for the Sunday Times. Follow him on twitter at @JStern_Cricket