West Ham United – 4-2-3-1 – Tactical Analysis (2020-21)

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Recently, I did a second Aston Villa Tactical Analysis discussing how Dean Smith’s side went from narrowly escaping relegation in 2019-20 to now being genuine contenders for the Europa League in time for next season. The same could be said of West Ham United. Although David Moyes’ side escaped relegation by a greater margin, they’ve also been better than Villa by a narrow margin again this season, just in a much different place in the table for both. Like Aston Villa, West Ham United are also contenders for a place in next season’s Europa League with their performances in the league in 2020-21. With Villa being one of their top challengers for a top six finish, doing the double over the Lions has also boasted well for the Hammers as they go into the final third of the season. Here is a tactical analysis of West Ham United since they shifted from a 5-4-1/3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1.

system of play: 4-2-3-1

As the title of this article suggests, West Ham United have played a 4-2-3-1 formation in the majority of matches this season, particularly since around matchday eleven. The Hammers kickstarted their positive form this year in a 5-4-1 formation, but ever since injury to Arthur Masuaku, they’ve reverted to a back-four and the 4-2-3-1 formation that they utilized most prominently under David Moyes. We will discuss the advantages of the 4-2-3-1 from a West Ham United perspective throughout this article, but first we take note of the consistent performers in the side.

Lukasz Fabianski has retained his place in goal for all but one match this season, keeping seven clean sheets in his twenty-two appearances. Vladimir Coufal has looked like one of the signings of the summer having come in from Slavia Prague, and has started nineteen matches so far this campaign. At centre-back, Craig Dawson and Fabian Balbuena have battled for a place alongside Angelo Ogbonna, but it’s been the former Watford man preferred lately with the Peruvian undergoing injury treatment. Now that Ogbonna’s out too, Aaron Cresswell may need to shift inside as he did to great effect as part of a back-three earlier in the season. But Cresswell could also continue at left-back, having moved back into that role due to Masuaku’s injury. Ben Johnson and Ryan Fredericks also remain options at fullback if Cresswell is moved inside to accommodate West Ham’s heavy injury list. Declan Rice could hypothetically also play as a centre-back in either a back-three or back-four, although it would take some steam out of the team in midfield.

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Rice has been the team’s standout star for two seasons in a row now, and he’s partnered by the other star in the team – the newly acquired Tomas Soucek, who came to the club in last season’s January transfer window. Exceptional with the ball at his feet, Rice is complimented by the more robust, box-to-box, aerial threat of Soucek. Together, they’ve kept club captain and legend Mark Noble out of the side, although Noble’s still made twelve appearances. Ahead of their solid partnership, David Moyes has an increasing list of options. Pablo Fornals and Jarrod Bowen have been the two first choice wingers throughout the season, but all of that may change now that Jesse Lingard’s arrived at the club. The 28-year old playmaker has struggled to find his place at Manchester United since Bruno Fernandes’ arrival, and looks like a perfect fit for West Ham to add more comfortability in possession and creativity in attack. Said Benrahma’s also had a positive impact since arriving from Brentford, and has been the team’s usual number ten since the formation change. Michail Antonio holds the hammer down at the top of Moyes’ attack and with West Ham selling their only other striker in Sebastien Haller to Ajax, Antonio’s fitness will now be more important than ever before. So those are the players, now let’s get more into the tactics associated with this 4-2-3-1 formation.


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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 sixth lowest in the league. Since they spend an awful lot of time without the ball, their 4-2-3-1 shape is actually more likely to take the shape of a compact 4-4-1-1/4-4-2, as the attacking midfielder joins the striker in the first line of pressure. One of the strengths to this mid to low block that they deploy is that they remain very, very close together, moving in harmony. The fullbacks and wide midfielders in particular are often practically on top of each other in defensive phases, working together to thwart attacks. For all their time spent without the ball, it’s impressive that they’ve only allowed nineteen crosses per game. They’ve delivered twenty-one per game to bring some context, which is the joint-third highest in the league and certainly the most of teams with lower than 45% of the ball.

West Ham have been perfectly happy to have their opposition spend time on the ball, passing it around as the Hammers shift and slide from left to right or right to left. When they win the ball, they frequently look to spring it forward with longer passes, although they can be comfortable in possession with the likes of Rice and Cresswell taking charge. The Hammers have completed sixty-one long ball passes per game, the sixth most in the league. They’ve also won the second most aerial duels per game (20.9), behind only Burnley. Much of these duels happen in attack, where a player like Antoino or Haller when he was out injured, holds up play and brings others into the game. Their long-balls are also often spread to the wide areas for their speedy attackers to run onto, as the fullbacks join the attack and get forward to combine. After getting a hold of the ball high up the pitch, the wingers also frequently invert, or drift inside with the ball at their feet, as the fullbacks overlap. This approach has been very effective in helping Moyes’ men create chances, with 12.3 shots per game (7th best in the league). This means that they do a fantastic job of creating chances, taking shots and even scoring far more goals than would be expected of a team with their amount of possession. This defensive mindset and then quick forward thinking approach to spread the ball long has been a key element to that. They beat Wolves 4-0 at the start of the season with just 37% of the possession and claimed victory over Leicester in a 3-0 victory with only 30% of the ball. Their first win against Villa came with just 34% of the ball, and the second, with the arrival of Jesse Lingard, came to fruition with 44%. These are all examples of West Ham not just scraping a narrow 1-0 win through being defensively resilient, but examples of the Hammers being actually quite deadly in attack despite having little to do with the ball.

defensive stability & aerial ability

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West Ham’s defensive stability has been one of the biggest improvements from their play this season in comparison to previous seasons. With two very solid defensive midfielders, who also happen to be giants, West Ham’s aerial presence and ability to cover space in midfield areas makes them very tough to break down. As discussed with Aston Villa, this is one of the primary benefits of the 4-2-3-1 as opposed to a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3, as the weight of the defensive responsibilities can be spread across two players rather than one. They can work in tandem together shifting depending on the side with the ball, and link up with the winger and fullback to create a trio of players capable of shutting down wide areas together. With this level of defensive resilience, patience and cover, it becomes very hard for opposition teams to create overloads in wide areas and/or deliver crosses. When crosses or longer passes do find their way toward the big men at the back, the Hammers are more than capable of winning their duels. Several of their defensively minded players have won significantly more than they’ve lost in the air…

PLAYER% Duels WonWon Per 90
Tomas Soucek61%6.0
Craig Dawson70%2.5
Angelo Ogbonna57%2.2
Fabian Balbuena59%1.7
Vladimir Coufal62%1.6
Declan Rice58%1.5
(c) WhoScored.com (2021)

This defensive stability has contributed to an impressive tally of just twenty-eight goals against in their twenty-three matches, which happens to be the joint seventh best defensive record in the league so far. No team has conceded fewer with less possession of the ball, again making West Ham a very interesting side. Their aerial ability also comes into effect at the other end of the pitch, with Tomas Soucek frequently galloping forward to get into the box and make a nuisance of himself. You can pretty much guarantee, especially under the 4-2-3-1 where an extra creative player’s been added into the mix, that when the ball’s in the box, Soucek’s likely soon to follow or already there.

attacking & defending set-pieces

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One of West Ham’s primary features as a team, the Hammers win a lot of free kicks and corners. Importantly, with all of their aerial presence in both attack and defense, they are particularly effective at converting them. Moyes’ team have scored eleven goals from set-pieces this season, the joint most in the league. But unlike those that join them at the top of that category, they’ve only conceded two, which is the joint lowest in the league (a.k.a. the best). West Ham clearly pay an awful lot of attention to their set-pieces in training and it’s paying off for them as a key mechanism in both stopping goals from going in, and scoring them at the other end. It’s not as though they do anything particularly tactically elaborate, they just have a few exceptional deliverers in Aaron Cresswell, Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma to start off. Cresswell is the most likely set-piece taker on a consistent basis, assisting five goals, creating a chance and a half per game, and delivering nearly two crosses per game. But it’s evidently not just the quality of the delivery, but also the threat and aerial ability that so many of their players possess.

Moyes’ team have scored nine goals with their head this season, many of which have come from free kicks and corner. Craig Dawson has made a career out of getting his noggin on the end of set-pieces. But virtually all of West Ham’s centre-backs pose a threat. Ogbonna, Dawson, Balbuena and Bowen have all scored from set-pieces this season, in addition to the man on everyone’s lips – Tomas Soucek, who’s bagged four of his eight goals from free kicks and corners. The sheer fact that they have so many so talented in the art of heading and winning duels in the air reduces opposition sides to a near impossible task. If for example they double-team Antonio, Soucek may be able to climb over his smaller defender or find space to control the ball into the back of the net. If they then correct that mistake, there’s still Ogbonna, Dawson/Balbuena or Rice to worry about. Most teams simply don’t have enough aerial presence to even handle Soucek and Antonio, let alone handle the three to four others who could also find the back of the net. In defense, their mix of zonal and man-marking means they can have the exact same aptitude and rarely ever concede. It’s perhaps a bit old-fashioned, but what else would you expect from a David Moyes and West Ham United side? They’ve been very adept at playing to their strengths and for that, team and manager deserve an immense amount of credit.


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West Ham United have been one of the surprise packages of the 2020-21 Premier League season. Their aerial ability and compact defense are there for all to see, but it’s perhaps gone a bit under the radar just how good they’ve been both off the ball and in making the most of their time when they do have it at their feet. It hasn’t really mattered whether they’ve played 5-4-1 or 4-2-3-1, they’ve managed to be defensively resilient and capable goal-scorers regardless. With the Hammers currently sitting in sixth place, they continue to challenge for a place in Europe, and look like one of the toughest sides to break down in the entire league.

So there it is! A tactical analysis of David Moyes’ 4-2-3-1 with West Ham United in 2020-21. 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!

You might also enjoy…

-> Why Aston Villa Will Qualify for Europe this Season – Tactical Analysis
-> Carlo Ancelotti – Everton – Tactical Analysis
-> David Moyes – 5-4-1 – West Ham United – Tactical Analysis


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