Sam Allardyce only narrowly kept his job last season, with co-chairmen David Gold and David Sullivan charging the West Ham manager with bringing entertaining football and a top-10 finish to Upton Park in 2014-15. But can the 59-year-old bring the good times back to east London?
Goal takes a look at the state of play at the Boleyn Ground.
With the club targeting a return to the top-10 following 2013-14's disappointing 13th-placed finish, the Hammers have spent big in the summer transfer window. Chief among the acquisitions is Ecuador World Cup star Enner Valencia, signed for £12m from Mexican club Pachuca. The versatile Valencia – who can play anywhere across the front three – scored all of his country's goals in Brazil as they were eliminated at the group stage, having scored 23 goals in 27 appearances in all competitions last season. The hope is that he will supplement the threat of Andy Carroll in east London as Allardyce looks to ease the burden on the England international.
Another attacking signing is Mauro Zarate, the Argentine joining from Velez Sarsfield for an undisclosed fee. Something of a footballing nomad, Zarate has experience of English football, his loan spell at Birmingham in 2008 reaping just 14 appearances and four goals.
Emphasising the need for squad refinement, Allardyce has also brought in defensive reinforcements, Aaron Cresswell joining for an undisclosed fee from Ipswich Town and Carl Jenkinson making a season-long loan move from Arsenal.
Midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate – a name many West Ham fans had never heard of before this transfer window – has also joined the club, from Anderlecht, while the Hammers have managed to snap up promising young talent Diego Poyet from Charlton.
Key players, by and large, have been retained so far this summer, with Allardyce clearing the deadwood ahead of his summer recruitment drive. A number of youngsters – George Moncur and Sean Maguire among them – have been allowed to leave on loan while Joe Cole, a player past his best, departed to join Aston Villa on a free transfer upon the expiration of his contract.
Perhaps the most surprising exit is that of Matthew Taylor. Full of experience, the veteran winger joined Burnley despite making 20 Premier League appearances and delivering a series of consistent performances in 2013-14, robbing West Ham of vital squad depth on the flanks.
Fellow midfielder Jack Collison has also left the club, joining Wigan on loan, while back-up goalkeeper Stephen Henderson was allowed to swap the Hammers for Charlton on a free transfer, having become surplus to requirements at Upton Park.
West Ham's squad is categorised by one word: imbalance. In goal, the Hammers have two experienced custodians in Adrian and Jussi Jaaskelainen but both were forced to play behind a porous defence in 2013-14. West Ham conceded 51 goals last time out and, though steps have been taken to plug certain gaps, only Winston Reid offers any degree of consistency and quality at the back. Centre-back partner James Collins is 30 and has lost the majority of his pace on the turn, while James Tomkins' career appears to have stalled. Guy Demel and Jenkinson offer decent right-back options but it is a wonder that Joey O'Brien is still at the club. It also remains to be seen if former Ipswich star Cresswell will adjust to the Premier League.
Further forward, the club's most talented player has been marginalised and spent the second half of last season on loan at QPR. Ravel Morrison is a flawed but gifted attacking midfielder and deserves a chance under Allardyce – as his stunning one-man show in the 3-0 win over Tottenham last season
proved. Despite rumours surrounding his private life, he could make a difference this season if Allardyce chooses to bring him in from the cold. Instead, it appears Kevin Nolan will again be selected to lurk behind the striker, though the 32-year-old is not the player he once was. He does, however, almost guarantee at least five goals per season.
The signings of Kouyate and Poyet prove depth is required in midfield, though Mark Noble and Mohamed Diame will again play key roles this season. Both impressed only in fits and starts in 2013-14, however.
On the wings, West Ham have one of the most frustrating partnerships in English football. Matthew Jarvis and Stewart Downing are both talented players – and help fill out the homegrown quota – but they endured equally poor seasons last time out. Jarvis supplied just three assists, scoring twice, while Downing fared even worse, scoring just once and providing only two assists. For players signed for a combined fee of over £25m, it simply isn't good enough. They must improve in 2014-15, though they have little to be worried about in terms of competition for places. Valencia can play on the wing but is likely to be deployed through the middle, while Ricardo Vaz Te has shown no signs that he is good enough for the Premier League.
It is up front where the biggest worries lie, however. Hopes are high for £12m Valencia but Carroll is injured once again, Zarate is largely untested in English football and Carlton Cole is nothing more than a back-up. It is little wonder Allardyce is still searching for a striker.
Andy Carroll is undoubtedly the key man for Sam Allardyce but his injury worries only serve to highlight the folly of spending £15m to acquire him permanently from Liverpool last summer. He did not make his first appearance of the season until the turn of the year and ended the campaign with only two goals.
Valencia has been signed to supplement, rather than replace, the former Liverpool man but one has to wonder if Carroll will be given many more chances by Allardyce. Key to his much-maligned long-ball game, Carroll is unplayable on his day – as he proved at Euro 2012 with England.
More than just a big man up top, the 25-year-old is remarkably talented with the ball at his feet and provided four assists last season – only one less than Downing and Jarvis – a commendable achievement given his lengthy lay-off.
Much of West Ham's success this season, especially if they fail to recruit adequate cover in the remainder of the transfer window, will depend on Carroll's fitness. He is likely to be out for around four months but must come back firing on all cylinders.
If he doesn't, West Ham could be in trouble once again.
The ultimate 'marmite' manager, Allardyce divides fan opinion quite unlike anyone else in the Premier League. His style of football will rarely gain plaudits but he did well to steady the ship last season and even completed a hat-trick wins over fierce rivals Tottenham – a set of results which led to the release of a t-shirt.
Yet, despite the relative success, he is not schooled in the West Ham way and is often booed if the players resort to the safety net of route one. Despite a 2-1 win over Hull City last season, the manager was heckled by supporters following a second half which saw many players craning their necks to see the frequent long balls forward. Allardyce responded by cupping his ear and said afterwards: "I was hearing booing, I couldn't quite believe it. I'd seen something I've never seen before. Nothing surprises me, I suppose."
Despite his consternation the heckles from the crowd are symbolic of a wider issue; many West Ham fans do not want Allardyce in the dugout, regardless of results.
He has little room for error this season. If his players get off to a poor start, expect an early departure.
|A GOOD 2014-15 WOULD BE...|
It is perhaps a signal of the lack of genuine quality below the top seven that an eighth-placed finish is deemed achievable for West Ham, though securing a spot in the top 10 with attractive, entertaining football would appease the many fans who are currently calling for Allardyce's head.
A series of poor pre-season results – including humiliating defeats to Wellington Phoenix and Sydney FC – suggest that this could be a long season for the Upton Park faithful.
|WEST HAM ODDS FOR 2014-15
(From Paddy Power)
There is likely to be plenty of chopping and changing between eighth and 15th this season, but it looks as though the Hammers will end the campaign towards the lower end of the table.
Though there is arguably too much quality in the squad for the Hammers to suffer relegation, a bottom-half finish is unlikely to keep Allardyce in a job. He has been set the target of cracking the top 10. If he does so he doesn't just deserve to stay, he deserves a new contract.