West Ham’s recent clutch of defensive injuries is proving troublesome for manager Sam Allardyce, who has been forced to sacrifice his midfield powerhouse Chiekhou Kouyate to resolve the problem.
Kouyate returned from Africa Cup of Nations duty with Senegal just in time to fill the void left by Winston Reid and James Collins at the heart of defence.
While the 25-year-old has put in some performances of extremely high quality at centre-back, it was clear to see in the 4-0 FA Cup defeat to West Bromwich Albion that he is sorely missed in midfield.
West Ham have lost just two of their past 10 games in all competitions, however they have only won three and this is primarily due to all the absentees they’ve had since the turn of the year.
Diafra Sakho has been injured and surrounded by controversy following his failure to turn out for Senegal at AFCON, while Reid, Collins, Carl Jenkinson, James Tomkins, Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan, Alex Song and Mark Noble have all had spells on the treatment table.
Given the number of injuries over the past six weeks the Hammers have coped pretty well but the recent humiliation at the Hawthorns brought to light how much they’ve missed Kouyate’s presence in the middle of the park.
DETRIMENTAL EFFECT ON TEAM
The Senegalese star put in a world class display at the back during the 1-1 draw with Manchester United on his return and followed that up with another at Southampton, but his pace, power and athleticism was needed in midfield against the Baggies, as they dominated it from the get go.
Kouyate has played in defence for his country and at Champions League level with former club Anderlecht, so he is a more than capable deputy in such a crisis, although it clearly has a detrimental effect on an important part of where West Ham’s success this season has come from – the midfield turnover.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
With Kouyate missing from his preferred central-midfield role Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble form the two sides of the diamond, of which Alex Song is at the base and Stewart Downing the tip.
Nolan is the man that is filling in and he is clearly not quick or athletic enough to play in this position. Kouyate can carry the ball, has great acceleration, movement and can easily cover the ground needed but Nolan, at 32, finds it a difficult task and the rest of the team suffers as a result.
There are less options for the player in possession, more pitch for him to have to carry the ball into which in turn gifts the opposition more time to get bodies back and gives less space for the forwards to operate in.
Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho thrive on space and a quick transition of play, hurting the opposition with their pace and movement but against West Brom they were not given the chance.
Kouyate’s absence could perhaps also be an explanation for some of Song’s sloppy performances of late as he is holding onto the ball for longer, trying to pick out a more obscure pass because there is less movement around him. This forces Downing to sink deeper, too, which renders him less effective as he often drifts wide to find space.
Allardyce must look to rectify the situation quickly with the massive home match against London rivals Tottenham on the horizon.
He will be hoping to have either Reid or Collins back, meaning Kouyate can return to midfield, but if not it may be worth handing Doneil Henry his debut or even playing Joey O’Brien there.