On Saturday evening at the London Stadium, Manchester United came back from behind twice to beat West Ham United 3-1 with a flurry of classy goals. West Ham dominated the first half and probably should have put this game out of sight long before Bruno Fernandes came on. They took a well-deserved lead and had chances to score plenty more. West Ham has perfectly well all season without the fans and now the same with them. Manchester United was fortunate in not find themselves more than 1-0 behind at the halftime interval. The Hammers looked threatening even in the second half, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had different plans. He made his move right at half-time as Fernandes replaced Donny van de Beek and Marcus Rashford came in for the injured Edinson Cavani. Thus, the Red Devils put in a much-improved second-half display as the substitutions made a marked difference to their team’s attacking play and their moral and overall confidence seem to have uplifted.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics used by both managers in this game. This analysis will also look at how the substitutions and tactical changes made by Solskjaer in the second half helped in overturning a first-half deficit for the Red Devils.
West Ham United: 5-4-1
David Moyes made only one change to his starting line-up that had defeated Aston Villa 2-1 last weekend. Sebastian Haller replaced Michail Antonio, who was out with a hamstring injury. Moyes went for a back three even though they played with a back four in the second half of the last match against Aston Villa. Said Benrahma was on the bench again as Andriy Yarmolenko is still out, recovering from a bout of coronavirus.
Manchester United: 4-2-3-1
Solskjaer switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation for this match, and Dean Henderson made his first full Premier League debut in place of the injured David de Gea. The back four remained the same as Luke Shaw is still injured. Van de Beek started along with Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba in midfield as an attacking midfielder. Edinson Cavani made his first start in the league, replacing Fernandes who was not match fit and was on the bench for this game. Rashford started on the bench who was nursing a knock, and Anthony Martial started in place of him as a left winger.
West Ham’s defensive setup
Moyes set up his team in a 5-4-1 formation when they didn’t have possession of the ball, and he has been using it this season since the second match day. West Ham don’t typically like to keep the ball, and in this match they had only 39% possession. The Hammers defended in a mid to low block and force their opposition away from their goal.
5-4-1 is a very defensive formation by nature, which relies heavily on the defensive abilities of the back-five. It is a formation designed to stop teams from getting past in any way possible. West Ham made it very difficult for United to create chances in their defensive third in the first half. Hence, in the first half United were unable to create chances around the opposition box.
The Hammers don’t press high or with any intensity but also don’t engage in a true low block as you might expect from a team defending in this shape. When in full flow, there isn’t much distance between the defenders and midfielders as they remain compact and shift according to the ball when the opponent tries to switch the ball from one side to another. Like in the above picture, you can see that the defence line is playing a high line, touching the halfway line. Coufal, the right wing back has tucked in and has positioned himself near the centre circle.
West Ham’s key tactic was to suffocate the central passing lanes and not allow them to get through the lines. Pablo Fornals and Tomas Soucek did really well in marking Pogba and McTominay to not allow them to dictate the play in the centre while Declan Rice was instrumental in the midfield as he covered for both of them and also took care of Van de Beek. Haller was instructed to position himself between the opposition centre-backs to not allow them to rotate the ball. This forced one of the centre-backs to step out and play threaded passes trying to bypass an already crowded midfield.
West Ham relied on quick transitions to hurt United
When in possession of the ball, West Ham morphed into a 3-4-3 formation with full backs Coufal and Masuaku pushing into midfield to create width in attack which also left only the three central defenders at the back.
We could also see Fornals and Bowen join Haller in attack forming a front-three and they played more like inside forwards, operating between the opposition centre-back and full-back on both flanks.
Now, we will have a look at how West Ham attacked through quick transitions and smart counter-attacking play.
During possession of the ball, United started their build-up in a 3-2 structure with a double pivot of Pogba and McTominay. Whenever their forwards lost the ball in the opposition’s half, it left United vulnerable at the back with only five players to defend in a very compact structure. As you can see in the above picture, Coufal wins the ball on the right hand-side and doesn’t waste much time. He sends in a long ball over the opposition defence. Bowen sneaked in between Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof and gets on the ball to fire into the bottom left-hand corner of the net. But he was flagged offside as he made his run slightly too early.
In the above situation the United centre-backs were 2 v 2 against the opposition forwards as Aaron Wan Bissaka had to stay and look out if Fornals made any run in behind and also Alex Telles was too high and involved in the attack so he couldn’t recover to help in defence.
United pressed high with intensity on the West Ham defenders, which forced them to go long, and in the above situation it worked out well to their own benefit.
Balbuena hits a long ball ahead to his forwards, and Maguire lost the aerial duel against Haller. The ball landed on to the feet of Fornals and Haller started making a run. Maguire did not track back, and Haller was racing through on goal as other defenders were also caught off guard in a quick transition by West Ham. After going round the keeper, Haller slipped and allowed Henderson to grab the ball.
The above picture shows another instance when the United defenders got caught off guard in a quick transition and West Ham should have made it 2-0.
After winning an aerial duel against Maguire, Bowen passes the ball with his chest to Haller who is just behind him waiting for the second ball. Haller plays it to Coufal just inside the box and the right wing back drills the ball towards the far corner which Bowen meets but fires into the side netting.
Second half changes by Solskjaer
We will now have a look at the substitutions and tactical changes made by Solskjaer in the halftime interval.
Fernandes replaced Van de Beek and Rashford came in place of Rashford. United’s build up structure changed to a 3-4-3 which is almost same as West Ham but the only difference was that United’s wingers played wide unlike those of West Ham played more as inside forwards. As you can see in the above picture, during build-up McTominay dropped into the defence line as a right centre-back next to Lindelof and Maguire. Pogba and Fernandes have formed a double pivot in midfield while the full-backs have pushed high and wide, playing as wing backs.
In the second half United’s pressed in a narrow 4-4-2 formation with higher intensity in which Fernandes joined Martial in the first line of press as they tried to win the ball back in their defensive or middle third. United incorporated a man-oriented zonal marking. As you can see in the above picture, the left centre-back Rice has the ball, so United has shifted to the right. Thus, all passing lanes are blocked directly by cover shadow or situational man coverages, and the opposition right wing back is left unmarked.
In second half West ham sat deeper and formed a rigid defensive structure so to break down the opposition, United followed different pattern of plays. You can see the first pattern of play in the above picture which was to find Fernandes operating in between the lines and Martial would drop deep to receive a flick from Fernandes to link-up play and progress into the opposition final-third.
The above picture shows another pattern of play, which is the combination of wide rotations and quick circulation of ball to get into dangerous positions.
Bruno drifts into the space on the touchline, which was left open by opposition’s wing back, being out of position. Pogba plays the ball into Fernandes’ feet, who then played a diagonal pass into the feet of Rashford. Meanwhile, Pogba continued his run towards the left-hand side to open space in the centre for Fernandes to drift into from the touchline. This allowed United to bypass the opposition’s midfield and make space for Fernandes to work his magic in the final-third.
This is a risky attacking play which can leave you highly exposed to counter-attacks and carve open any defence if the passes aren’t accurate.
It was a fourth straight league victory for the Red Devils, but it does not tell you the full story for what was an inconsistent United side. They got away with a poor performance but possessed the character and belief to bounce back, which is exceptional. This season this United side has won a league-high 15 points from losing options and this win moves them into the top four while West Ham drops to the seventh position, having missed a chance to go third on the table. West Ham was sharper in every department, and they stifled the attacking threat of their opposition, but Solskjaer rung the changes at half time and his substitutes transformed the game. The Hammers will spend much of the aftermath of this match over countless missed opportunities. Surely there will be one day when the Red Devils will not get away with such a performance, but every time when they don’t. that day seems less and less certain.