When Gianfranco Zola became West Ham United's first foreign manager in mid-September, the club sat seventh in the league, having won twice at home and lost twice away. Now they are eighth, and have still lost as many league matches as they have won. Talk of a transformation, then, is over the top reports Paul Doyle in this morning's Guardian. Yet significant change is clearly under way at Upton Park. Where once there were forebodings of doom, now there is optimism, as reflected in a belief that the club can extend their eight‑game unbeaten streak when Manchester United come calling tomorrow.
"We are playing good football at the moment and the players are determined to continue," Zola says. "We will certainly try to win because I never play to draw. Even away to Arsenal last week we went to win and we only ended up defending so much because Arsenal forced us backwards." West Ham's resilience in emerging with a 0-0 draw at the Emirates came as no surprise to Arsène Wenger, who had already hailed Zola's team as "probably the best in the Premier League right now".
The Hammers boss has presided over a tactical, culinary and psychological revolution. At first he tinkered heavily with the team, causing many to wonder whether his lack of managerial experience meant he was unsuited to guiding the club through turbulent times. However, once he settled on his preferred line-up, results improved and, what is more, the slick play with which he has always been synonymous followed.
Doyle reports Zola's commitment to cerebral, on-the-deck football has clearly found favour with his players. Formation diagrams usually assign Jack Collison and Valon Behrami, for instance, to unfamiliar wide roles, but in reality they tend to dart all over midfield, sometimes augmenting the dynamic Scott Parker and Mark Noble in the centre, sometimes switching flanks entirely. The manager gives them licence to indulge their talent and instincts without diluting the emphasis on solidity. With David Di Michele flitting around Carlton Cole in a free role, West Ham's movement often confounds opponents, while their work ethic means they rarely leave gaps.
"I can't really compare with what has gone on here before, but I think we're now training more with the ball," Zola says. "We have it for at least 80% of our sessions and I think the players enjoy that." Integral to that training is the former Chelsea assistant manager Steve Clarke, whom Zola insisted on hiring as his No2. Just as West Ham's results have improved since Clarke's arrival, Chelsea's have deteriorated since he left Stamford Bridge and Zola is happy to give credit to the Scot. "I've always considered him one of the most important parts in what I'm doing," Zola says. "That's why I said I was only going to take the job if I had somebody like Steve by my side."
Their differing playing careers, observes Doyle, meant the assumption has been that Clarke takes charge of the defence while Zola looks after the attacking side of things, but the manager claims that the opposite is true. "The defenders and attackers all train together because it is all about cooperation," Zola says. "Only one day a week do we separate them and – you won't believe me now – but on that day I take the defence and Steve works with the attackers." Decidedly, the little Italian keeps on showing that there is more to them than meets the eye.
While doubts persist about the club's long-term financial sustainability if their owner fails to find the buyer he seeks, the anticipated mass exodus of players during the January transfer window did not happen. Whereas Zola's predecessor, Alan Curbishley, quit at the start of the season in protest at players being sold against his wishes, the Italian's only regrettable loss was Craig Bellamy, and he consoled himself with the loan capture of Czech international Radoslav Kovac, securing the excellent Herita Ilunga to a permanent contract, and the club-record purchase of Savio Nsereko. If that unexpected extravagance hints that the chalice he inherited may not have contained as much poison as originally feared, it is also true that Zola himself has come up with an antidote to many of the team's ills.
And it partly includes pizza. West Ham’s Italian boss now feeds his players the bread-based treat after every home match, ordering a delivery of pizzas from a local takeaway for the first-team squad after games to refuel tired players. Zola naturally takes his players’ diet extremely seriously and the club allow the exhausted squad to eat pizza only after a game because it gets their carbohydrate levels up extremely quickly. West Ham chef Tim De’Ath revealed: "The Italian way of eating is good. Since Gianfranco has been around we have served up less fatty foods. But there are certain foods which the players do eat following a match as it is the best type of food for them when they are refuelling."
Now concerned Hammers chiefs fear the walls at Upton Park will be left smeared with pepperoni and mozzarella if the table ‘topping’ visitors lose their cool tomorrow. Writing in today's Sun, Andrew Dillon recalls how warring United and Arsenal stars hurled slices of pizza at each other in the infamous ‘battle of the buffet’ in October 2004 at Old Trafford, after the Gunners had their 49-game unbeaten run ended in controversial circumstances. A Hammers insider is quoted as saying: "The players love their pizza after a game. It is the only time they are allowed to eat stuff like that. But United and pizza do not mix well and seeing how United have a habit of rubbing people up the wrong way, especially if they lose, there are fears it could all go off like it did with Arsenal. We will be monitoring the situation."
The other clear change Zola has effected is psychological, with the striker Carlton Cole being the most obvious beneficiary of his infectious bonhomie. For so long a frustrating player because a lackadaisical approach seemed to undermine his undoubted potential, Cole has struck six goals in his past seven games and improved to the extent that some are tipping him for an England call-up. "It's about attitude," Zola says. "You just have to keep telling him he can do it. It was not that he lacked aggression before, more that he was never truly convinced that he could always be a problem for top opponents but the fact is he can be as good as he wants to be."
Zola believes that Cole is approaching the game in the form of his life and is convinced that if United shut out the big man, they will deserve their points. "When Carlton is in form like he is right now he is very difficult to handle," said Zola. "He just wants to score and is determined to get the fame from the game. He wants to be the main man and the one who can turn Manchester United over." Cole will be hoping Capello is similarly convinced as to his talents even if Emile Heskey and Peter Crouch look set to get the nod ahead of him. Either way, Zola will not push his credentials over the coffee. "I am not the one to give Capello any advice," said Zola. "He knows a lot about football and much more than me."
Fabio Capello and Jose Mourinho will be in the stands as Manchester United lay their defensive credentials on the line with the former looking to fine tune his England squad to be announced tonight and the latter continuing his scouting of United ahead of their Champions League clash at the San Siro on February 24. As a result both will be looking to see how Carlton Cole gets on against a United defence that has not conceded a goal to an Englishman since West Ham’s perma-crock Dean Ashton scored at Old Trafford on May 3 last year.
And if it is true that you can judge a man by the company he keeps then Zola’s credentials as a manager destined for the very top of the game look set to receive the ultimate boost tomorrow, says Gideon Brooks. In between playing host to Manchester United, West Ham manager Zola will have pre-match coffee with Capello, share a post-match bottle of wine with Sir Alex Ferguson and then join Steve Clarke and Jose Mourinho for dinner.
And if further proof was required of his single-minded trajectory, it came at his pre-match assessment yesterday when Zola suggested that Ferguson might just be set for a carry-out and Mourinho a no-show if the result goes the wrong way. Unlikely as that may sound given that Zola’s smile is never far from breaking out, there is a definite belief from the Italian that West Ham are in a vein of form that would be capable of rocking the champions tomorrow.
Zola has spent the week poring over videos of Manchester United’s recent games and while his eyes may have looked tired there was a definite sparkle in them after spotting what he described as weaknesses. "I have watched their videos and I’ve spotted some things that can be good for us but I won’t tell you because otherwise you will write and they will take measures," smiles the Sardinian. "But while we will give them plenty of respect we are also sure we can really cause them some problems. We have a lot of confidence right now."
West Ham are unbeaten since they reversed a run of one win in 12 with a 4-1 victory at Portsmouth on Boxing Day. Manchester United are unbeaten and unbreached since losing at the Emirates nearly three months ago. It is a clash, therefore, in which something has to give. And Zola is confident that he could be opening a bottle of Italian red rather than merely handing it over at the end of play. Solving the sorts of problems that United will bring down to the capital tomorrow will not be an easy job, though. They are, as Zola said, the team having the least number of problems at the moment.
In addition to a productive but exhaustive video search this week, Zola is hoping that, having finally broken the record for minutes without conceding last weekend, there may be an element of relaxation about the champions of Europe. "Knowing their manager, he will be pushing them very much but we are hoping that that could be one of the things. But he also knows that in the last few games here the record is good for us so I’m sure he will be making the team very aware. It’s going to be a tough match and we will have to give the best of ourselves but this game comes at the right moment for us. We are playing our best, so it is perfect.”
Ferguson, Capello and Mourinho. Zola might not have noticed yet, but his reputation is clearly growing.