After disappointing losses to Newcastle and Arsenal, West Ham United have been on a surprising run of form. The Hammers scored seven goals in the span of two matches, without conceding against Wolves and Leicester, before clawing their way back from 3-0 down at Tottenham to draw level in the final minute. David Moyes has become almost something of an underrated manager these past few years after his failed spell at Manchester United and later, West Ham United. But the Scotsman quickly earned his job back after a year and a bit away and now has West Ham back in the top ten to start this 2020-21 Premier League season. Here is a Tactical Analysis of David Moyes’ West Ham.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 5-4-1
West Ham United started the season in what has become Moyes’ preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. But after the opening day defeat and an injury to their captain Mark Noble, Moyes changed his tactics to match Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation in the second match of the season, and has not looked back since. Despite losing that day to a goal in the final five minutes, David Moyes’ side put on a formidable performance. Since then, the 5-4-1 formation that shifts into a 3-4-3 in attack has been West Ham’s first-choice formation.
Lukasz Fabianski starts in goal, and in front of him has five defenders from five different nations. Czech defender Vladimir Coufal is the latest arrival and has gone straight into the side in place of former Fulham defender Ryan Fredericks. Coufal has added quite a bit of defensive steel and stability to West Ham’s back-line but isn’t as adventurous as Fredericks, which helps contribute to the 5-4-1 formation rather than it being a true 3-4-3. Arthur Masuaku on the other side has been growing into his role as the left-wing-back, but still looks susceptible at times in defense. Aaron Cresswell meanwhile is off to the start of his life in the left-centre-back position and has helped to add some defensive stability in behind. Alongside Cresswell are two experienced international defenders, Antonio Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena. Both are good in the air and sound ball-winners, which aids in Cresswell’s ability to be slightly more adventurous and creative. The defensive stability that those five players have demonstrated so far means that Mark Noble will do very well to get back into the side after he fully recovers from injury. Noble’s selection would likely mean Masuaku shifts out of the side as Cresswell returns to the left-back role in a back-four.
Also keeping the West Ham captain and legend out of the side is Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek, who have offered much steel and solidity in front of the back-five. Rice has been fantastic since his introduction as a defensive midfielder in Pellegrini’s 4-1-4-1 formation, and it’s easy to forget that the fill-in captain is still only 21-years old. His ability to drive the ball forward and be West Ham’s key passer has been aided by the arrival of Tomas Soucek last January. Soucek is a phenomenal box to box midfielder who poses both an aerial threat and an extra defensive presence that Noble doesn’t quite possess.
Further forward, West Ham have a luxury attacking midfielder playing on the left wing in Pablo Fornals, alongside the more robust goal-scoring threat of recent acquisition Jarrod Bowen. Up front, Michail Antonio leads the line after playing an immense part in West Ham’s survival last season. There’s an argument that none of the front three are playing in their “natural positions” but it doesn’t seem to matter at all as West Ham continue to make more magic happen going forward than they would be expected to do given their possession statistics and style of play. Further, the role of these three players in attack has been imperative, and also responsible for keeping players like Sebastian Haller, Andriy Yarmolenko and Manuel Lanzini out of the lineup.
Now, let’s get right into more of the tactics within this 5-4-1 / 3-4-3 system.
PHYSICALITY & AERIAL PRESENCE
They’re no Burnley, but West Ham’s physicality and general ability in the air remains a key feature of their play. Tomas Soucek has won more duels in the air than any other player in the league this season, while Antonio’s presence up front allows West Ham to play the ball forward quickly and stretch their opposition in a way that suits the wingers either side of him. Antonio acts as a target man up front and is adept at bringing the ball down and linking up play with the two mobile wide players around him, who frequently adopt positions slightly inverted to both combine and allow the wing-backs to engage further forward.
The Hammers sit sixth in total aerial duels won, but they’ve lost fewer in the air than any team above them in that category. Yet despite this aerial presence, the Hammers don’t tend to play longer passes. The only player to attempt more than 10 per game is the goalkeeper – Fabianski. This suggests that West Ham prefer not to play out from the back on things like goal kicks, rather than the long-ball game being an intentional strategy like Burnley or Sheffield United. Instead, Moyes’ men use their aerial presence to defend exceptionally well, and cause a threat the other way from both crosses and set-pieces. Within their 14.2 shots per game (7th highest in the league), 4 of those shots per game have been headed shots, which is significantly higher than any other team in the league. Unsurprisingly, they’ve scored 4 goals from crosses (2nd in the league behind Everton) and 3 from set-pieces (tied for 3rd highest in the league). So West Ham United’s aerial presence and physicality isn’t exactly used as it was in the days of Sam Allardyce, Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan, but it is still an important feature of their play and a key metric for chance creation and scoring of goals.
BETTER WITHOUT THE BALL?
As has become customary of their approach since Slavan Bilic, West Ham don’t typically have much of the ball. Moyes’ team have kept only 44% possession this season, the 4th lowest in the league. Considering their low possession statistics, it’s actually quite impressive how much the Hammers have accomplished in attack. They boast the third most amount of crosses per game (21), and they’ve scored 11 goals in their five opening matches. So without really playing a long-ball game and instead operating very horizontal with width, crosses and methods of quick verticality involving shorter passes on the ground, they’re quite intelligent in getting the ball forward as quickly as possible and creating chances relative to their possession. The Hammers beat Wolves 4-0 with just 37% of the possession, and smashed Leicester in a 3-0 victory with only 30% of the ball. They’ve scored 11 and conceded only 7, so evidently, West Ham are actually quite decent without the ball at their feet. The 5-4-1 formation, mid to low block and defensive stability of players like Soucek and Rice in midfield have aided in their cause to shift from side to side without worry, forcing the opposition away from their goal.
The Hammers don’t press high or with any fervidity or intensity. But they also don’t engage in a true low-block as you might expect from a team playing 5-4-1. Their defensive line is actually quite high and when in full flow, there isn’t much distance in between the defensive and midfield lines. They remain compact, shifting with the play as the opposition move from left to right, timing their tackles and not diving in with any overly aggressive fouling. In cases when bigger gaps are created and the balance of the shape becomes disrupted, then they are prepared to engage in more of the aggressive fouling, allowing themselves to reshape again. Moyes’ defensive organization has been one of the key improvements from his team in comparison to Manuel Pellegrini’s. Aside from the three goals they conceded against Tottenham’s individual brilliance, they’ve been quite solid and keeping both Leicester and Wolves at bay in back to back matches was an impressive achievement.
CRESSWELL’S ROLE IN ATTACK
Aaron Cresswell has been one of the best defenders in the league this season, but it doesn’t have too much to do with his defending. Despite being West Ham’s left-centre-back and not the wing-back, Aaron Cresswell currently leads the league in crosses. The 30-year old defender is constantly looking for moments to get the ball forward and whether it’s a cross or an incisive forward pass into space for Antonio, his role in attack cannot be understated. Some teams have overlapping centre-backs; Cresswell is more of an underlapping centre-back, who actually doesn’t get forward all that much. A lot of his crosses and balls over the top happen from quite deep on the field, making his role in assisting 3 goals this season even more impressive.
With a player like Cresswell and the other talents surrounding him on the left-side in Fornals, Masuaku and Rice, it’s no surprise that Moyes’ men favour the left-hand-side (41% of their attacks). A key reason for this is not only Cresswell, but the dribbling power of Arthur Masuaku. Pablo Fornals is a silky ball carrier himself, but doesn’t tend to dribble forward for any great length of time. Masuaku on the other hand has completed 3.3 take-on’s per game, the 4th highest in the league. To give some context, that’s only 0.2 less than Allan Saint-Maximin, and the same number as Jack Grealish. So having Cresswell in the side as a left-centre-back has evidently allowed Masuaku to engage in actions that are more suited to his style of play, than being an out and out left-back would require of him. The balance between the two is actually quite solid and although Masuaku has been dribbled past more than any other player this season, the Hammers haven’t suffered from it with Rice and Cresswell mopping in behind. Overall, the link up play down the left-side has been key for West Ham’s ability to put crosses into the box for the likes of Michail Antonio and significantly important to their intriguing start to the season.
West Ham United have had much in the way of trouble since moving to London Stadium in 2016-17. But this season David Moyes appears to be leading the team to better times under a new 5-4-1 formation. The system of play has encouraged more defensive stability and allowed the players to gel together in a way that suits their style of play, rather than forcing them into a system that doesn’t aid in their qualities. With recent acquisitions like Jarrod Bowen, Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal coming into a side that already had plenty of capable footballers, West Ham United have the makings of a side capable of finishing in the top ten again. If they can keep up this run of form and continue to succeed without much in the way of possession, the Hammers may be in for their best season since the departure of Slavan Bilic.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of David Moyes’ West Ham United. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, and share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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