Guardian writers' predicted position: 11th (NB: this is not necessarily Jacob Steinberg's prediction but the average of our writers' tips)
Last season's position: 10th
Odds to win the league: (via Oddschecker) 2,000-1
When he was appointed by West Ham two years ago, Sam Allardyce boasted that he "turns dreams into reality", a bold claim at a club where, as the song goes, they fade and die. If it was not exactly up there with the time he said that he would be given a job at a top-four club if his name was Allardici, or that he would not be out of place at Internazionale or Real Madrid, it did reveal the gargantuan level of self-belief that Allardyce needed to survive a fraught first season at Upton Park, when the fans viewed him suspiciously and it appeared he might not restore West Ham's Premier League status.
For a while, his relationship with supporters was largely one based on mutual mistrust. They worried he was too dour, negative and obsessed with route one to manage at the Academy of Football. He accused them of being "deluded", dismissed some of their criticism as "bollocks" and questioned the value of the supposed West Ham Way. "There isn't one because people who have worked here for a number of years cannot say what it is," he said in March 2012. "It is not passing and losing, that is for sure."
He had a point. West Ham's morale was at an all-time low when Allardyce arrived, the decision to make Avram Grant manager in 2010 inevitably leading to a shambolic relegation and exacerbating the financial mess David Gold and David Sullivan inherited from the club's Icelandic owners. West Ham were seen as a soft touch but they have become battle-hardened under Allardyce. Having gained promotion via the play-offs, they never looked in danger of relegation last season, their focus, determination and unity rewarded by finishing 10th.
It might not have been enough for an "In Big Sam We Trust" banner to be unfurled at Upton Park but an uneasy alliance is developing into a far happier relationship and supporters have been left in no doubt that Allardyce's confidence in his own ability is grounded in logic. That transmits itself to a team that did not necessarily have any business outplaying and beating Chelsea 3-1 last season.
Gold and Sullivan deserve credit for West Ham's revival over the past two years. Derided for the way they treated Gianfranco Zola after their takeover in January 2010 and then for replacing him with Grant, their decision to turn to Allardyce has been vindicated and they have supported him in the transfer market, spending £21m to buy Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing from Liverpool, and they have agreed a deal for West Ham to move to the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season, which they hope will allow them to compete at a higher level.
Leaving Upton Park is a sacrifice that has to be made but it will still be a wrench, not least because it became such a fortress last season. The foundation for West Ham's success lay in their home form: very Allardyce. Previous West Ham sides have wilted in front of a crowd that does not need much of an invitation to turn mutinous but this squad has thrived and responded to the pressure. In more harmonious times, it is an intimidating ground to visit and no side enjoyed their trip to east London last year. They drew 2-2 with Manchester United and 0-0 with Manchester City, recovered from a goal down to beat Chelsea and were only beaten four times. Arsenal and Tottenham were inspired by Santi Cazorla and Gareth Bale respectively, Everton benefited from a preposterous red card and Liverpool won with a freakish own goal. In three of those games, West Ham were ahead in the second half.
However, while they were bright and energetic at home, taking the game to the opposition and attacking with verve, their approach worked less well in away matches. They won three times on their travels (1-0 at Newcastle, 1-0 at Stoke and 2-1 at QPR) and only scored 11 goals, which was the lowest tally in the league. Insipid defeats at Aston Villa, Fulham, Reading, Sunderland, Swansea and Wigan provided ammunition to those critical of Allardyce's pragmatism, which is easier to accept when it leads to positive results, less so when the football is uninspired and you have nothing to show for it.
Their physicality means that they are often portrayed as a crude eyesore and they are certainly not shy of getting stuck in, committing 470 fouls and picking up 74 yellow cards – although their one red card, Carlton Cole's against Everton, was later rescinded. However it is wrong to dismiss them as limited hoofers, a topic that continues to stalk and irritate Allardyce.
The issue is not black and white. Under Allardyce, West Ham are probably never going to aspire to be the Barcelona of the East End and there will always be a focus on set-pieces. Nor will their tactic simply be to give the ball to James Collins and watch him launch the ball roughly in the direction of the opposition's penalty box. Last season, West Ham were actually 14th in the list of long balls attempted. Players such as Joe Cole, Mohamed Diamé, Downing, Jarvis and Mark Noble are hardly donkeys.
West Ham work to a formula which is geared to getting the best out of Carroll and Kevin Nolan, a pair whose bromance knows no bounds. Although it is true that the Hammers are quick to get the ball into the box, it is usually delivered from wide positions for Carroll to attack. Never comfortable at Liverpool after his £35m transfer, Carroll has been more comfortable at West Ham, who grew increasingly dependent on him last season, although his questionable injury record does mean the decision to sign him for a record £15m represents a gamble.
Carroll, who scored seven goals in 24 appearances during his year on loan, is set to miss the first few matches with a heel problem and with Carlton Cole leaving on a free transfer and Marouane Chamakh failing to impress while on loan from Arsenal, West Ham's only fit striker is Modibo Maiga, who struggled to make an impact after his £4.5m move from Sochaux last season, scoring twice in the league and making only two starts. West Ham are conscious of the need for another striker but have so far been frustrated, moves for Salomon Kalou and Duvan Zapata having fallen through.
With Carroll unable to participate during pre-season, Ravel Morrison, the talented 20-year-old who was once described as the best youngster Manchester United had produced since Paul Scholes, has stolen the limelight. His troubles off the pitch eventually led to United giving up on him, with Sir Alex Ferguson finally deciding enough was enough, and he was sold to West Ham for a pittance in January 2012. Initially he struggled at West Ham and has still only made one substitute appearance for them in a competitive fixture, but he appears to have matured during a productive year on loan at Birmingham City. He has scored six goals in pre-season, including two in a 3-2 win over Sporting Lisbon and one after 16 seconds in a 2-1 win over Paços de Ferreira, and his pace, skill and dribbling ability have raised expectations.
Morrison could give West Ham a spikier, more unpredictable edge but he may have to be patient as he waits for first-teamopportunities, with Allardyce increasing the quality and competition for places in wide areas. Against Aston Villa on the first day of last season, Matthew Taylor and Ricardo Vaz Te started on the left and the right respectively but both players will have to settle for squad roles this season. If the £6m signing of Downing makes it look like West Ham's scouts all have season tickets at Liverpool, the winger following Carroll and Joe Cole from Anfield to Upton Park, the England winger should fit neatly into Allardyce's system. While Cole and Morrison offer a dash of ingenuity, assuming the former can stay fit and the latter out of trouble, the crossing of Jarvis and Downing will provide the ammunition for Carroll and Nolan, who was the side's top scorer last season with 10 goals.
At the age of 31, Nolan remains vital. No other midfielder got close to matching the captain's total last season and although his contribution becomes murkier when he loses his touch in front of goal, his team-mates speak in glowing terms about his leadership qualities and the way he keeps the squad united. Yet just as important as Nolan's goal tally was the contribution of Diame, whose trickery, power and barnstorming runs earned him admiring glances from Arsenal and Tottenham in January. West Ham held on to him, though, and they are an inferior side when he is missing. The lack of cover in midfield is a slight concern following Gary O'Neil's exit and Jack Collison's battle to regain full fitness after his knee problems, although Alou Diarra has returned from a loan spell at Rennes with something to prove after it had appeared his relationship with Allardyce had deteriorated beyond repair.
Diarra is also an option at centre-back, providing cover for James Collins, Winston Reid and James Tomkins, who all performed well last season. A defence which can be susceptible to pace has also been enhanced by the arrival of the Romania captain, Razvan Rat, on a free transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk, which ensures that the versatile Joey O'Brien will not have to play out of position at left-back. In goal, Jussi Jaaskelainen's experience masks the flaws that have crept into his game and his starting spot will be challenged by Adrian, a 26-year-old Spanish goalkeeper who has been signed on a free from Real Betis.
With Allardyce in charge, West Ham are unlikely to be the neutrals' favourites. But more importantly, they are unlikely to go down and, barring an injury crisis, they should be aiming for another top-10 finish. Like him or loathe him, and plenty loathe him, Allardyce knows what he is doing.