Work in process

So now we know, at last we have an idea of just where we are and what level of improvement we are making under Sam Allardyce.

Like him or loathe him, and I meet fans of both persuasions, Sam has just completed 60 games in charge of our club, and lost just 13...three of which were cup ties, and we all know how disinterested big Sam is when cup competitions come around. They get in the way of the real job in hand, firstly promotion back to the top flight at the first attempt and now staying in the Premier League.

Yes, I know most of that 60 were outside the top flight so the achievement is relative. So any real early-season assessment has had to wait as far as I was concerned, until we played a true top of the range club. And until Arsenal arrived at the Boleyn on Saturday, we did not really know how far we had progressed under Sam.

And I left the ground on Saturday, gutted we had lost but also relieved we had been able to hold our own against one of Europe's genuine heavyweights, and impressed with what I had witnessed.

We didn't just play long ball, we mixed things up and produced a performance of strength and organisation. Only when we got tired and got caught pushing forward in the last 13 minutes did Arsenal cut us open to score twice and achieve a deserved victory, but one that left them aware that the had not totally outclassed us.

In fact, two mistakes by Momo Diame, after he'd scored a stunning goal, cost us victory. First he turned in midfield into traffic and had the ball pinched from him, and that led to Theo Walcott's goal, and then soon after when he made the wrong choice of pass as he sought to lift the ball into their box. Again the ball was lost, and in the back of our net within seconds.

It says something that we can isolate small incidents to pinpoint where we lost the game. The previous time Arsenal were at our place was January 2011, we were totally outclassed, embarrassingly humiliated. We lost 3-0 and it was a stroll for the Gunners.

We have seen lots of statistics these past few days, some which must have made Sam think Christmas had come early. So I'm going to throw in a few more for good measure.

Of that team who lost so badly back in January 2011, only five of the 18 Hammers players on show that day, are still with us. Mark Noble, James Tomkins, Winston Reid, George McCartney and Carlton Cole.

Sam says 40 players have gone from our club since then, and we have a very different squad now. The likes of Upson, Bridge and Kovac played that day, do I need to say more. We were on a different planet to our opponents.

We were going down and were just not able to compete. On Saturday we at least did that, and with a little more luck could have scored a couple more in the second period.

Sam has changed so much, even the first team selected in his reign - the 1-0 home defeat to Cardiff on the first day of last season - has seen a massive alteration. Eight of the 16 used that day have since left (or been dumped); Green, Ilunga, Barrera, Parker, Piquionne, Faye, Boffin and Sears to be exact.

It has been a major work in progress, and I defy anyone to say that our current squad is not a world away from the beginning of last term or that shameful display the last time Arsene Wenger's team played at the Boleyn.

But even that is not enough for some people. I still blink at some of the stuff on message boards from fans who reckon we should be able to compete with the likes of Arsenal, and cannot see the stark reality of football these days.

Arsenal have been in the Champions League for the last 15 seasons. That means, at a conservative estimate, ?20m of Champions League money a season. So that's around ?300m they have had, plus a fine new stadium, that we have not had access to.

If you add in all the Premier League prize money and the rest of the cash that floods into the top clubs, you could say Arsenal have had well over ?500m to play with over those 15 seasons while we have been floundering from one ownership shambles to another.

Now look at us. Why on earth do some fans believe we can compete against that sort of financial muscle? It's the same for Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool (then maybe, but probably not now) and even Spurs who have been in Europe consistently for the past few seasons.

So when Sam sends out an organised team who are not over-run and are able to compete to a decent standard, that's an achievement little over 14 months since he arrived.

Just look across London to QPR and see a manager in Mark Hughes who has behaved like a kid in a chocolate factory and used 23 players this season but has not put together anything like a proper team. And up at Anfield where Brendan Rodgers is the short-passing flavour of the month but just cannot win matches.

I'm beginning to wonder if he is some kind of one-trick pony who has ridden on the back of Roberto Martinez to get a top job. After working under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea but not pulling up any trees at Watford and Reading before moving to Swansea, he walked into a club put together by Martinez that was impressing everyone. It got him a move to Liverpool, after Roberto had turned the job down, and now he can't win a home match for love nor money.

Our start to the season has been ok considering the fact that the first few games were against sides who will be around us in the table this season. Arsenal were the first of the big boys, and we managed to cope.

Sam must also be smiling that the long-ball tag has been rubbished somewhat. Unless you are reading the Mail on Sunday, which I will come to later.

Last week a very decent piece of writing from the Mail's Neil Ashton produced statistics to show that Real Madrid and Barcelona use the long ball about as much as us. I hear you all laughing, and Sam also would have smiled knowing you can produce stats to prove anything.

The criteria for what is a long ball was also open to interpretation. In effect, any pass forward more than 25 yards counted. So balls swept out to the wings counted, as did Xavi's perfectly weighted passes threaded through the eye of a needle for Messi to run onto. Not quite the same as balls hung up for Cole to fight for.

But the Sunday Supplement boys of Sky the previous Sunday morning had started the ball rolling when they suggested Sam's long-ball tag was a myth. Neil Ashton was 'chairing' that programme - taking over from the sadly departed Brian Woolnough - and just carried on the theme in his own paper later in the week.

The point being made was that Sam does mix-up his tactics, it is not all hit long and hope for a flick on. But he is the only manager who gets stick for it.

You just have to look at Everton, under the excellent David Moyes, to know that long-ball is acceptable. And just watch how Alan Pardew's Newcastle lob the ball up for Ba and Cisse to relentlessly battle for.

And Martin O'Neill at Leicester (Emile Heskey) and Aston Villa (John Carew) has never been afraid to hit it long. Now he has Steve Fletcher, and it's the same tactics.

Which brings me back to the Mail on Sunday where the outstanding veteran Patrick Collins has clearly got a thing about us. He wrote a snearing, sarcastic piece recently about Sam's debatable relationship with his agent pal Mark Curtis, and then was cruelly dismissive of our efforts against Arsenal. The previous home game against Sunderland, saw another Collins writing the report for the same paper, Mark Collins. I do hope there's no nepotism there.

In that report, it looked as if the scribe has written down every anti-Sam clich? he could muster while he was on the Tube coming to the game, and then listed them through an annoyingly biased article which implied Sunderland were unlucky.

We had managed four times as many shots and twice as much possession than O'Neill's team, but those facts were somewhat lost in a piece that set out to rubbish Sam from start to finish.

Now he is no angel, yes the ball does go long to Andy Carroll, but that is not the only way we play. That is my point. But we do not seem to be given the sort of understanding that Moyes, Pardew and O'Neill seem to get.

One more stat. And that was on Sky, who showed that Sam was in the top six of 'wins to matches played' in the Premier League. So what do we have?

My view is that we have a strong, professional manager who has knocked our club into shape, and now we have the character, team spirit, desire and work rate to hold our own in the top flight.

But it is only so far so good. If we are nine points off the relegation zone after 20 matches, I will suggest we can stay up.

But now, having done ok against the Gunners, we have Manchester City, Chelsea, Spurs, Newcastle, Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton before the new year. That means the matches against Southampton, Wigan, West Brom and Reading in that spell are ones we must get points from.

Tough, for sure, but at least we know we can compete against the big teams, and that has been a long time coming for a club like ours.

* Like to share your thoughts on this article? Please visit the KUMB Forum to leave a comment.

More Opinion