West Ham United played out two hard-fought 1-1 draws in their last two Premier League outings against high-flyers Liverpool and London rivals Crystal Palace. In this piece of tactical analysis, we will analyse how the Hammers, despite coming under intense pressure, held firm and avoided defeat in both of those matches.
Having been stuffed 3-0 by Wolverhampton Wanderers prior to the home fixture with Liverpool, another humiliating defeat looked likely for Manuel Pellegrini’s side. However, having gone behind to an offside goal courtesy of Reds forward Sadio Mane, the East Londoners held their nerve and swiftly levelled up the scoreline, following a neat finish from Michail Antonio. An organised second half display limited Liverpool to very few chances and earned a point for the hosts.
Against Crystal Palace, the Hammers looked dangerous on the counter and got themselves ahead through a Mark Noble penalty. After the break, the South Londoners came out strong and created some good opportunities for themselves. The breakthrough eventually came for Roy Hodgson’s men, when Wilfried Zaha’s deflected effort rather fortuitously looped over Lukasz Fabianski and into the net. The game, once again, ended in a 1-1 draw with West Ham defending strongly.
Now let’s analyse the key points and statistics behind the difference in those last two performances, compared to the humbling defeat at Wolves.
Defending from the front
The performance at Molineux, less than two weeks ago, was completely unacceptable from the Hammers. When you are playing away from home, most teams come under pressure, no matter who they are up against – so it is imperative that the whole side puts a shift in. Against Wolves, Pellegrini started the game with Marko Arnautovic and Michail Antonio up front, with Robert Snodgrass and Felipe Anderson on the flanks. Out of those four players, they made just two successful tackles during the game, which came through West Ham’s playmaker, Anderson.
In contrast, against Liverpool, with Chicharito replacing Arnautovic and Antonio shifting out to the right, the front four made twice as many tackles. Then in the game at Selhurst Park on Saturday, starting with the same lineup that played against Klopp’s side, Anderson made seven tackles on his own.
Perhaps the change in formation may have helped, but the shift to a 4-2-3-1 setup appears to be a key part of the Hammers’ change in fortunes. It has meant that Snodgrass can drop in to help the central midfielders and for the likes of Anderson and Antonio to get up and down the field, defending from the front, with an extra midfielder inside to help them out.
Stronger in the tackle as a team
As mentioned above, West Ham made more tackles from the front against Liverpool and Palace, as opposed to their previous outing against Wolves. But their all-around defensive performance as a team improved in both matches. At Molineux, Pablo Zabaleta and Arthur Masuaku started at full-back, but the pair have since been replaced by Ryan Fredericks and Aaron Cresswell.
Against Nuno’s men, the Irons made just 15 successful tackles, whilst their opponents made 24. Notably, Pedro Obiang made the most tackles for West Ham, despite coming off the bench in the 69th minute. However, in the meeting with Liverpool, the East Londoners made 18 tackles and Liverpool made 16. Declan Rice chipped in with a whopping eight tackles.
Then the team’s numbers improved again against the Eagles, making 22 successful tackles, compared to the hosts’ 17. Fredericks had the difficult task of dealing with Zaha in South London and, despite the winger getting on the scoresheet, the right-back did well to make five tackles.
Taking care of the ball
It is imperative that when you are playing Premier League football, you look after the ball and allow the team to get up the park and maintain possession. That was something that the Hammers simply didn’t do well enough against Wolves. They were dispossessed of the ball 12 times, with Arnautovic, Antonio and Anderson the biggest culprits – registering eight between them.
Meanwhile, with the switch in personnel and formation against the Reds last Monday, Pellegrini’s men were dispossessed on just six occasions, with their opponents actually giving it away 12 times. Importantly, lone-striker Chicharito played a key role in helping his side get up the pitch, as he wasn’t dispossessed at all during the game.
At Selhurst Park on Saturday, they improved even further – registering just five dispossessions. Palace actually gave the ball away cheaply on 15 occasions, which is a credit to the Hammers. Once again, Chicharito didn’t give the ball away at all whilst he was on the field.
Dominant in the air
The Hammers looked extremely shaky from not just in the air, but on set-pieces overall against Wolves, which resulted in two of the hosts’ goals. In that game, while Nuno’s side won 24 aerial duels, West Ham were successful in the air on just 16 occasions – and it really did cost them. As the focal point of the side, Arnautovic failed to win a single header. The team seem to have learned their lesson since then, though.
When Liverpool visited the London Stadium, the Irons looked dangerous on set-piece situations, but more importantly, looked calm and composed when the ball was whipped into their own box. They won 19 aerial duels, compared to Liverpool’s 17 and, although it’s not a massive difference between the sides, it’s a huge improvement on the display at Molyneux. Despite being up against the towering duo of Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip, Chicharito managed to help out the side by winning two headers.
It was always going to be difficult against Crystal Palace, given the support that the home give and the noise they generate – but the Hammers defended well in the air. They made sure that Christian Benteke wasn’t allowed to impose his power and height on the game, reducing him to making just three headers. Palace actually only won 11 aerial duels on the day, whilst West Ham once again came out on top with 14.
Over the last couple of games, there has clearly been an improvement in not just results, but also the performance and effort levels of the side. From front to back, the players have been working hard and look much more comfortable in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Whilst Arnautovic is West Ham’s best player, given the recent performances of Chicharito, it is only right that the Austrian has to now earn his place back, following his disappointing display against Wolves. But no matter who plays, if they keep working hard and doing the basics well, then the results will continue and victories should be just around the corner.
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