Will West Ham’s Zarate masterclass spell the end for Nolan?
08:47 25 August 2014
PA Wire/Press Association Images
The Hammers captain may be struggling to get back into the team when he returns from injury
While West Ham fans hailed a new hero in Mauro Zarate at Crystal Palace on Saturday there would have been one man who might have had mixed feelings – injured skipper Kevin Nolan.
The 32-year-old faces a few weeks on the sidelines with a fractured shoulder and in that time his position at the heart of manager Sam Allardyce’s team may have simply been taken away from him.
No doubt Nolan would have been delighted with the 3-1 win at Selhurst Park - he is a Hammer through and through – but it was the difference in the style of play with Zarate in the team that was so startling against Crystal Palace.
Mark Noble linked superbly with the little Argentine striker. The front man dropped into the hole and when he got the ball there was no laying it off or passing it back that we may have seen from Nolan. Instead he turned his marker and sprinted hard at the defence causing chaos as he did.
With almost his first touch, he beat two men and was then felled for a free kick. He then combined with Ricardo Vaz Te to get into the box, only to miscontrol at the vital moment and then came the pivotal moment of the game.
Noble and Vaz Te swapped passes from a short corner and when Noble’s shot was blocked, it ballooned to the edge of the box where Zarate was waiting to volley it superbly into the corner of the net.
“I think it was the second chance I had,” said the 27-year-old former Velez Sarsfield striker. “The ball came not easy, but I took it good and the ball went into the corner.
“I don’t know how I do this, in training we try this sort of thing, so in the match we have a chance to do it and this time it went in.”
It certainly did, but there was so much more about Zarate’s game that was fresh and exciting. Nolan has huge capabilities as a leader and as a poacher in the box, but last week against Spurs, it was difficult to work out what position he was in. He certainly rarely got close to main striker Carlton Cole.
Zarate dropped into the hole, but he also spent plenty of time linking with Cole.
“I was a little behind Carlton and I like playing in that position,” explained the Argentine. “I had many opportunties to shoot and to give passes to my team-mates.”
That was perhaps the secret of Zarate in the number 10 position. Unlike Nolan, the South American linked the midfield to the front line perfectly, there was no isolation for Cole and consequently West Ham were much more attacking and dynamic from the first whistle.
“It was a fantastic match for everyone in the team,” continued Zarate. “I am very happy because we took the three points away, so it was very important for us.”
So what did Allardyce make of the new signing? There are stories that it was the owners and not the boss who did the deal to bring him back to the Premier League after they had him at Birmingham City in 2008, but nevertheless, the West Ham boss was suitably impressed.
“I think the lad has grown up and matured,” he said. “I can remember him for his spell at Birmingham with Alex McLeish. He has been to Italy and back to Argentina and scores some goals and I think he looks like a mature player now.
“He has a lot of quality in the final third which is something different to what we have. He took his opportunity brilliantly and hopefully he can continue to mature and grow.”
There are two points that come from that statement. First is that he is something different. He is a natural number 10 and that is something that has been severely lacking in West Ham’s team. Second, if he is to continue to mature and grow then he needs to play games, but when Nolan returns from injury will Big Sam simply restore his right hand man?
It was only a managerless Crystal Palace on Saturday and we may be reading too much into one game. Nolan has been a brilliant captain and has been top scorer for three seasons.
But now may be the time for a new attacking Hammers team and that would have Zarate at the heart of it. Whether Allardyce agrees with that, remains to be seen.