The unlikely striker who holds the key to helping West Ham beat Man United

Alex Keble looks ahead to the battle of the big men when West Ham welcome Manchester United on Sunday...

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For West Ham fans, their pulsating early-season form – characterised by high-tempo attacking football and the silky dribbling of Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho – may already feel like a distant memory.

Symbolised by the thunderous reintroduction of Andy Carroll, West Ham have slowly devolved into the predictable and largely uninspiring team that has characterised Sam Allardyce's tenure.

Sometimes it's been with good reason – against Hull at Upton Park, a switch to a more direct style at half-time paid dividends and helped the Hammers to a 3-0 win over the struggling Tigers.

And this weekend, more of the same will be ideal to break down a Manchester United team who, although increasingly solid defensively, remain vulnerable in the air.

Their record of five goals conceded in the last 11 is certainly impressive, but it will worry Louis van Gaal that four of these goals resulted directly from lost aerial challenges, reflecting a broader pattern of United failings in this area (14.3 aerial duels won per match is the league's fewest).

United were outdone aerially in the reverse fixture against a West Ham side without Carroll. 

The loss of Carroll to injury is a major blow for Allardyce (his 9.1 headers won per match is by some distance the league's best), but in Carlton Cole he has a replacement who, yet to complete a full 90 this season, will pounce on the opportunity to remind Allardyce of his talents as a targetman. The beanpole striker was angered by his deadline-day loan move to West Brom falling through, but can make a difference here. 

West Ham persistently look to play long balls up to Carroll, who wins far more headers than he loses. His replacement is clearly less proficient, but should – against aerially weak opposition – be able to make an impact.

Undoubtedly, Allardyce will gleefully continue his primary creative strategy and instruct Stewart Downing (2.8 crosses per match, a league high) to hurl as many crosses into the box as possible.

It is a strategy that is likely to be, on this occasion, very successful. No team has scored more goals from crosses this season than West Ham (whose tally of 18 represents 50% of their total outlay), and no team has created more chances from long passes (2.5 per game).

Van Gaal would be wise to field Marouane Fellaini (3.5 aerial duels won per game, a team high). Given his impressive display as a substitute at Loftus Road in United's last away match, his chances of selection are high. If he doesn't feature, it'll be up to Marcos Rojo (2.6 aerials won) to keep Cole quiet.

When playing Arsenal – another side well renowned for aerial deficiencies – Downing crossed the ball whenever possible. On the right, we can see Fellaini looking strong and dominant against Southampton.

West Ham vs Man United LIVE ANALYSIS with Stats Zone