We Need To Talk About Kevin: Can West Ham cope without Nolan?
By Dan Wheeler
It has been something of a long-standing quip among a proportion of West Ham fans that the only way Kevin Nolan would lose his place in the side, aside from suspension, was if he ever got injured. Now, thanks to Moussa Dembele, they have got their wish. Nolan will miss the next few weeks - and could sit out as much as a month - with a broken toe that he sustained the Hammers’ latest defeat against Tottenham.
Nolan has divided supporters’ opinion pretty much ever since he signed for the club from Newcastle in the summer of 2011. At the time his arrival was, understandably, heralded as something of a coup for the club who were battling debts the size of Denmark. Yet here was Nolan prepared to drop down a division and muck-it-out in the Championship.
Cynics pointed to his plump, five-year contract, as the reason why the move to East London proved irresistible to the midfielder who was days away from turning 29. Nevertheless, marquee signing he was and considerable asset he would surely prove, even if the club had had to pay through the nostrils to get him.
It did not take long though for the rumblings to begin. Although the team’s promotion campaign got off to a decent enough start there were comments about the captain’s overall contribution to the team. Nolan did not tackle enough. Nolan did not defend enough. Nolan just did not play well enough to justify his constant selection. The team did better without him. They were all regular accusations to fly his way. Some had merit. Others less so. The one thing Nolan always had in his locker though was goals.
He scored 13 as the Hammers went up through the play-offs and almost all of them were vital. Only one came in a losing cause and three times he got the game’s only goal. So whatever you said about Nolan, you could not argue he was not having an influence.
The advent of the Premier League season seemed to usher away a lot of the doubts. Nolan was back in the big time and revelled in the early weeks. He scored the winner against Aston Villa on the opening day and another in the first minute against Fulham when his link-up play with Andy Carroll seemed to signify the club were entering an exciting new phase.
Things have not quite worked out like that though. Although he remains the club’s top scorer with six, the goals have dried up. His strike at Fulham at the end of January was his first for nearly three months. He has not scored since.
Without his main deflector, the doubts have crept back. Never blessed with pace, Nolan struggles to operate effectively in a flat, four-man midfield so the club rarely plays with two strikers with an extra midfielder needed to compensate for Nolan’s “free” role. With Nolan not finding the net regularly, it is no surprise that West Ham are as toothless as they are.
With Sam Allardyce reluctant to leave his captain out unless he is forced to, the situation has not been address. Until now.
So how will West Ham cope without Nolan? To my mind, they ought to be able to do pretty. well. While Gary O’Neil may not have Nolan’s touch or vision, he has the legs. Jack Collison has those attributes as well as an eye for goal. Mark Noble may make Nolan look like Ronaldo when it comes to pace, has a better range of passing.
But it is what Nolan’s absence might mean for Joe Cole that is the most enticing prospect. Cole has been stuck on the right hand side of a front three since he rejoined the club in January and, although the quality of his crossing has brought a fresh dimension to the team, it is not the central role he craves. As the club’s most creative and inventive player it is he who should be allowed the play the part exclusively reserved for Nolan. He was West Ham’s best player when he moved into a more central position following Nolan’s withdrawal against Spurs. He scored a cracking goal too.
Nolan does have a place in the side but exactly where remains undecided, especially if he is not scoring goals and it may turn out to be just behind the midfield rather than just in front of it. You could argue his enforced absence might turn out to be a blessing in disguise if Allardyce is cute about his options. The next month could see just how vital Nolan is.