Almost a week since West Ham's defeat by Bournemouth at the London Stadium, it remains no easier to understand Manuel Pellegrini's decision to play Mark Noble and Jack Wilshere together in a 4-4-2 system.
The midfield duo were overrun in the second half, ruining the team's shape and allowing Bournemouth to assume control, and it was hard not to nod in agreement when Sam Allardyce questioned this week whether a Noble-Wilshere axis was quick enough to flourish in the Premier League.
Not that Pellegrini is interested in what the former West Ham manager has to say about the composition of his midfield. “That is the opinion of Sam Allardyce,” he said. “I respect him and everyone has his opinion.”
Pellegrini’s view is that Noble and Wilshere make up for their lack of speed with their passing ability. Yet while the Chilean is teaching his side to play on the front foot, perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that Noble is a doubt with a back injury for West Ham’s trip to Arsenal on Saturday.
The evidence from the Bournemouth game is that Wilshere will have a better chance of impressing against his former side if Pedro Obiang replaces West Ham's captain.
It will be Wilshere's first time back at the Emirates Stadium since he left on a free transfer in the summer, and he is bound to find it an emotional occasion. He would also love to show that he should have been a bigger part of Unai Emery's plans, although there are reasons for Arsenal's manager to believe that the Gunners will function perfectly well with Lucas Torreira and Mattéo Guendouzi in midfield.
Yet to dazzle
Emery has surely noticed that Wilshere is yet to dazzle at West Ham. The east London club are pointless after two games, though maybe that is a consequence of signing 10 players this summer. Pellegrini admits that he does not know his best team yet and he called for patience after a €111 million spending spree.
“If you review my career, at Villarreal, at Málaga, at Manchester City, the first games that I managed were never good games,” he said.
One issue is that Pellegrini's squad contained many holes when he replaced David Moyes in May. West Ham had little money left for an elite defensive midfielder after reinforcing in defence and attack, even after the €10.5 million sale of Cheikhou Kouyaté to Crystal Palace. It has been a problem area for a while. Slaven Bilic wanted William Carvalho from Sporting Lisbon before the start of last season and Moyes saw a move for Anderlecht's Leander Dendoncker falter in January.
Dendoncker has joined Wolves since then, and Pellegrini spent the dying stages of the summer window searching for a holding player. Having chosen not to challenge Fulham for Nice’s Jean Michaël Seri, West Ham ended up signing Carlos Sánchez from Fiorentina on deadline day. The jury is out on Sánchez, an experienced Colombia international who failed to impress during his Aston Villa days, and there is a sense that Pellegrini could be undermined by his stodgy midfield.
West Ham lost their opening game 4-0 against Liverpool despite using a 4-2-3-1. Pellegrini started Irish international Declan Rice in front of his vulnerable back four, only to remove the 19-year-old at half-time and drop him against Bournemouth, and Wilshere and Noble were blown away by the dynamism of Naby Keïta.
The suspicion is that years of injuries have robbed Wilshere of the spring that allowed him to dominate Barcelona’s Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta at the age of 19. He is 26 now and there was no controversy about England excluding him from their World Cup squad.
Pellegrini, however, is so convinced by Wilshere's class that he compared him to Andrea Pirlo. He thinks that Wilshere is best dictating the play from a deep position rather than as No 10. "He's not a defensive midfielder to hold the line," Pellegrini said. "He's more comfortable when he comes from our side. You must leave him to receive the ball because he's going to make things happen.
The danger for West Ham is forgetting that pace and power are vital qualities in the modern era
“A lot of you will remember Juventus around four or five years ago played with one holding midfielder. It was Pirlo. And Pirlo is the same as Jack. He has the same characteristics as Jack.”
Wilshere as the English Pirlo? It is an attractive thought. But the comparison ignores that Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal formed the rest of Juve's midfield, not to mention that Serie A is nowhere near as intense as English football.
The danger for West Ham is forgetting that pace and power are vital qualities in the modern era. Pellegrini wants to entertain but a man of his experience does not need to be told that it is impossible to win when the midfield battle is lost.
Emery says Mesut Özil will have to "live with" the criticism he continues to receive in Germany following his decision to retire from international football. This week Uli Hoeness, the president of Bayern Munich, said Özil was less a footballer than a "marketed product".
Emery yesterday pledged to support the midfielder but also said that criticism is par for the course. “We are here to help him,” Arsenal’s manager said. “We are his family and [the club] is his home. In our careers, as coaches and players, we are going to receive criticism. When we do well they are also going to speak about us well. It’s a habit for us to have critics. But we are professional. We need to live with this.”