Friday night football is somewhat of a new experience to the Premier League. If West Ham vs Fulham is anything to go by, however, it should become a mainstay in the schedule moving forward. The tactical battle between these two teams and their established managers was a joy to do analysis on.
West Ham made just one change from their draw against Crystal Palace a week earlier. Zabaleta came in for Ryan Fredericks in the right-back slot as the team continued with the 4-1-4-1 formation.
Fulham made three changes from their defeat at Manchester United. Cairney and Sessegnon returned to the starting 11. Havard Nordtveit also made his Fulham debut at centre back against his former employers. Ranieri set his team up in a 4-4-1-1.
The game started extremely quickly, with Fulham focusing on pinning the opposition as deep in their half as they could. With just one minute on the clock, the visitors almost got the breakthrough. A miss-hit Zabaleta backpass was pounced upon by Babel. The Dutchman was unable to take advantage of Fabianski making a good save to keep the tie level.
Mitrovic and the angles of support
Fulham had a clear gameplan if building in the first phase was not available. If the initial phase was taken away through Hernandez and the two West Ham wide players, they looked to go long. With West Ham set up in a 4-3-3 off of the ball, Fulham switched to a 3-4-3 to try and overload the middle third.
With this shift in shape, it was easy for Fulham to create horizontal numerical overloads in the midfield. As you can see in the photo above, Fulham have overloaded their left-hand side. Bryan and Sessegnon have taken up spots in the left-wing space. With Mitrovic positioning himself between Zabaleta and Diop.
With Mitrovic the target from the long-ball, it was up to Sessegnon and Babel to provide the diagonal angles of support. Both players positioned themselves in close proximity of the ball. Fulham now has positional superiority. With their position, Fulham can now combine and draw in the West Ham defenders, creating positional superiority on West Ham’s weak side.
1-0, it had been coming
Not long after the above example, Fulham managed to take advantage of the situation. With another longball played towards Mitrovic, Babel and Sessegnon positioned themselves in support of the ball.
In addition to the forward three, Seri managed to complete the diamond. This provided Fulham with positional support off of the ball.
Due to West Ham’s positioning of Rice, Seri and Fulham had to look to attack the half-spaces. From here it was down to Noble and Snodgrass to cover these counterspaces.
Seri managed to keep himself goalside of Noble and dribbled towards Sessegnon. From here they looked to create a two vs one against Zabaleta.
Here they are in the wing-space and having created a two vs one against the opposition fullback. It then becomes vital the forward players positioned themselves blindside of their marks. You can see Babel and Mitrovic focusing their runs forward in the spaces between the centre backs and the right fullback.
The movement in the above picture is very intelligent from Mitrovic. By making the run diagonally towards the front post, Diop has to follow. Due to this Sessegnon just has to beat the front man with his cross to provide an excellent goal scoring opportunity.
Babel gets goalside of Ogbonna and has a simple tap in past Fabianski. West Ham has six players plus Fabianski in the penalty box against Fulham’s four. The positional superiorities Fulham created however completely nullified the home sides defensive positioning.
Set pieces turn the game on its head
West Ham created little in open play during the first half. They did, however, win numerous set pieces as the first half came to a close. As we had seen in previous weeks, particularly against Liverpool, West Ham are well drilled in terms of set pieces.
Fulham set up to defend corners with three players lined up on the edge of the six-yard line. Three deeper players cover the short option, deep ball and player on the keeper. The remaining four then position themselves covering runners. Seri picking up the man on the edge and the other three going man for man.
In both cases, Fulham set up the same way. In both cases end up conceding from a ball into the front post zone.
Fulham may feel aggrieved about the possible use of a hand in the equalising goal. However, the issue that allowed the ball to fall to Hernandez also caused the second goal. Babel was drawn out of the front post zone by Antonio on both occasions. This allowed West Ham a free run at the ball.
A man with momentum vs a man stood still is not a fair battle. Diop, in particular, took advantage of this and sent his side into the break holding a lead.
Now with a lead, West Ham looked to continue their newfound brand of football. Under Pellegrini West Ham have become intriguing to watch from an analysis standpoint and the second half was no different.
With the success of their wide players Anderson and the impressive Antonio, West Ham looked to put the game beyond Fulham. Both wingers pinned their opposing fullbacks deep whenever possible. This gave them room to drop in to receive the ball between lines.
From here they could look to combine through the midfield three. If this wasn’t an option they could take on their counterpart through dribbling at them. For Anderson, who has settled wonderfully into Premier League life, this usually involved combinations with Snodgrass.
Snodgrass consistently found himself pushing up into the top line in the left half space. As you can see from the above pass map, this interchange with Anderson happened consistently.
In contrast, Antonio formed triangles with Noble and Zabaleta (later Fredericks). These short passes would attract Fulham’s left-back Bryan towards the ball. This left an open field for Antonio to be able to attack, and attack if he did. Antonio led the game in dribbles and touched the ball 77 times. The third highest behind teammates Noble and Cresswell.
Antonio capped off one of his finest all-around performances in the claret and blue by finally putting the game out of Fulham’s reach. He stepped up to head passed Rico in stoppage time with his fourth league goal of the campaign.
This was a fitting end to the game for Antonio. With Nasri and Lanzini coming back to fitness Antonio will have to consistently find this level to keep his place.
West Ham and their midfield fluidity
One of the keys to the game was West Ham’s ability to remain positionally stable in possession. The midfield three were key to this. Their fluidity in positioning themselves, whilst maintaining team shape caused Fulham issues throughout the 90 minutes.
With Fulham dropping into a mid to low-block off of the ball, it gave the West Ham backline plenty of time and space on the ball.
What this space and time allowed them was the ability to pick their passes and also drive the ball forwards in an attempt to create numerical overloads. Babel and Mitrovic shifted between the lead pressing role. This switching allowed the West Ham middle three rotational opportunities.
Rice, Noble and Snodgrass were very fluid in their positioning. With the deeper of the three looking to occupy the central channel. The other two looked to take up positions behind the Fulham midfield line in the left and right half-spaces.
From here, the wide players for West Ham looked to combine or interchange with the more attacking midfielders.
In the above image, you can see a line interchange between Anderson and Snodgrass. This provides disruption in the Fulham backline. You can also see Chambers trying to communicate the switch with his backline.
These rotational interchanges happened throughout the game with Noble and Rice regularly switching positions. Snodgrass and Anderson interchanged more than Noble and Antonio, with the latter preferring to dribble with the ball at his feet.
West Ham continued to sit in front of Fulham’s first line of pressure and behind their second, rather than take up a position between lines. This left a large gap that Fulham’s midfield continued to step into, creating more space for Snodgrass and Noble to receive the ball in higher up the field.
After the start they had, Ranieri and Fulham will be disappointed in how they limped over the finish line. Early signs of promise were quickly snuffed out by the home team. Although they had periods of good possession in the second half, it was rarely with purpose. As such isolated Mitrovic from the game. Ranieri commented afterwards about the lack of fight but based on this performance it is more than just fight this Fulham team are missing.
West Ham, on the other hand, took another step forward in cementing their top half finish. A team that has performed well in previous weeks without always getting the result to show for it. This game was different, and Pellegrini will be happy that his squad continued to play their way even after conceding early. Each week there are more elements of positional play being integrated into their general play. If this continues West Ham fans should be looking forward to the coming weeks. With players such as Lanzini and Nasri now ready to make an impact in the first team, this could be a very happy end to the season for the East Londoners.
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