Most recent West Ham line-up.
From goal-kicks, West Ham’s passing directness ranges from short to long when they are trying to transition from the early build-up stage to creation, but have often used medium to long-range passing, which suits their direct playing style. Fabianski is not afraid of launching his goal-kicks long and wide to the flanks or to the physical striker Antonio, but when looking to play out and if the short option to the central defenders is too risky, Fabianksi would then look to use the full-backs as an outlet and play a mid to long pass out wide.
Whenever the goalkeeper is in possession, the two central defenders would drop deep to offer themselves as an option unless the goalkeeper signals his defence to push up for a longer kick. If the opponents look to engage with two attackers, West Ham will use a 2+1 shape (two central defenders and Rice), and if the opponents pressed with three attackers, West Ham would form a 3+1 shape with Rice dropping into the defence line and Soucek offering himself as the 1. Generally, though, West Ham tend to take the more direct approach, with 70% of their goal-kicks launched and 57.8% of Fabianski’s passes so far being launched, according to fbref.com.
3+1 build-up demonstration
Fabianski decides to play a medium-ranged pass out to the left flank as Palace looked to prevent the goalkeepers’ distribution.
The Hammers look to get the ball forward efficiently by using width and the full-backs to do so. When looking at their passing links from their most recent game against Crystal Palace (below), we can see just how heavily involved the wide-men were, especially the full-backs Cresswell and Coufal and how often the deep central players looked to get the ball out wide. It is no surprise that per 90, both of the full-backs have the most touches of the ball for West Ham, with Cresswell getting 81.3 touches and Coufal getting 78.0. Also, note that most of these touches received are between the mid and attacking third.
Working the ball wide is an attempt to break the opponent’s narrow defensive structure as it forces the defending wide player to leave their position and engage West Hams wide player on the ball. When this happens, this can create space for a West Ham attacker to sprint into the open channel, and this is how West Ham like to progress play into their creative stage.
Working the ball out wide demonstration
Once West Ham have progressed to their creative phase, they look to create chances by getting the ball into the box early as possible. Often, this results in West Ham sending in a large number of early crosses to take advantage of the aerial ability that Antonio and Soucek possess. West Ham’s attacking shape does not change much from the 4-2-3-1, but we do see Soucek breaking from his central midfield position often to get inside the box when the ball is worked out wide. Though, West Ham make sure they have a rest-defence set up in order to prevent counter-attacks. Moreover, we also see the two wingers drift inside whilst the full-backs occupy the wide flanks but the wingers drifting inside is not exclusive as at times to work space for a cross, the winger and full-back may attempt to create an overload on the defending player.
So it should come as no surprise to see that West Ham have attempted the 3rd most crosses per 90 so far with 21.34 with the full-back Coufal being the largest contributor. Coufal has attempted the 4th most crosses from the right-flank per 90 in the league with 5.57. Cresswell, the opposite full-back, is ranked 9th from the left-flank with 3.4 and Benrahma has attempted 3.86 per 90 for West Ham.
The image above captures what we may expect to see when West Ham have worked the ball out wide for a crossing opportunity. Bowen (bottom right) drifts out wide with the defender choosing to follow him and, in turn, creates a hole between the left-back and left-sided central defender. Just outside the box, Rice and Benrahma have chosen to hold their position as the Hammers’ rest defence, picking up loose balls or ready to recover the ball for West Ham. Finally, we see Antonio and Soucek making forward runs inside the box to pose as the aerial threat.
West Ham’s attacking display so far has been imposing, and the Player of the Month nominee Antonio has played a significant role contributing to seven goals so far in just three games (four goals, three assists). The Hammers have had the most touches inside the penalty area whilst also topping the xG charts with – a clear indication that West Ham have opted for a positive approach. As touched on earlier, West Ham have strengthened their side this summer, but Dawson is the only new signing regularly featured, so it will be intriguing to see how the new signings will settle in and improve the Hammers.
Transition to Defence
Before analysing West Ham’s defensive work, it is essential to note that West Ham are a counter-attacking side. Once they win possession of the ball, they look to go on the attack. The 4th goal in their opening game against Newcastle is the perfect example.
Michail Antonio working hard for his team, dropping deep to help The Hammers win the ball back and in the end, he recovers the ball. Note that Benrahma has already started to make his counter-attacking run.
The West Ham midfielder spotted the forward run by Behrahma right away and attempts a first-time direct pass into his path. Setting West Ham on the attack.
Benrahma gets the ball under control and carries it towards the Newcastle central defenders. Though Michail Antonio worked hard to get back and recover the ball for his side, he also works hard to now support the attack by sprinting forward to support.
The counter-attack ends with Benrahma feeding Antonio the ball and the in-form Jamaican international smashes home West Ham’s fourth goal of the game.
Knowing West Ham take a counter-attacking approach, we may also get the idea of how West Ham look to set up defensively. Longer spells without the ball, the Hammers will operate in a narrow and compact mid-block whilst being patient with their pressing and breaking their defensive shape. Moyes sets his team to force the opponents out wide, and that is where West Ham complete most of their defensive duels and recoveries, as we can see below from their most recent game against Crystal Palace.
Defending narrow and actively forcing the opponents out wide cuts of access to the opponent’s central players, making it difficult to be broken down and to achieve this, careful body positioning will need to be utilised. When the opponents are playing out from the back, West Ham are happy to allow the building team to have the ball as Moyes’ team will focus on carefully positioning themselves to cut off central passing lanes. This is how they get their opponents to play out wide due to lack of options, and West Ham will use the pass out wide as their pressing trigger.
Looking at these screenshots, Leicester had 12 seconds of possession whilst West Ham worked extremely hard blocking central passing lanes and marking nullifying the central threat. The player closest to the ball usually takes the responsibility of positioning themselves between the ball and man.
In this scenario, Leicester could not work the ball forward due to West Ham’s block, so in an attempt to receive the ball, Youri Tielemans dropped deep into the right half-space.
Daniel Amartey’s body positioning had already given away the direction of the pass, but as soon as the ball has left his foot to play the pass, we can see West Ham’s press now triggered. This wide pass was an invitation for both Antonio and Benrahma to press more intensely. Fornals is also ready to join the press, as, if Tielemans gets the beating of both men, he had had a free passing option and space to carry otherwise.
This principle has remained the same, defending deep in their half, trying to force the opponents away from the goal and danger. The Hammers have done this effectively, and they have been defensively solid in the opening three games. They have 8.4 shots against per 90, which is the 4th strongest in this area, indicating how hard they have made it for their opponents to create scoring chances, but they also have the lowest challenge intensity, according to Wyscout. Challenge Intensity calculates duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession, so given how patient West Ham have been in breaking their defensive shape, again, this is no surprise.
Lastly, upon losing the ball, Moyes’s side will collapse in their transition. Meaning, they look to go back to their defensive shape rather than counter-pressing trying to win the ball back soon after losing it. This goes hand in hand with their patient defensive approach, not actively seeking to win the ball back when out of possession unless they have been triggered to press. West Ham’s PPDA is at around the leagues average, 12.6 (12.59 is the leagues average) further proving their pressing approach. Not intensely pressing nor sitting back and inviting too much pressure from all areas of the pitch.
To conclude, David Moyes has his side well-coached and seems to have found a system that suits his current crop of players. Last season, Moyes did use a back three, but it is clear that the 4-2-3-1 formation is his and West Ham’s preferred system. With Europa League games to play during mid-week, it is unknown how the players will cope with the heavy schedule, but with their summer transfers and truthfully, players who strengthen the squad depth, West Ham are in good hands for another joyous season and possible European qualification.
West Ham play counter-attacking football and looks to create chances from the wider areas by putting the ball into the box early, taking advantage of their aerial presence. However, what was not touched on during the analysis is that they are also strong at attacking set-pieces. Last campaign, they scored 14 goals from set-pieces, and it will be intriguing to see if that will carry on during the rest of this season.