Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Manuel Pellegrini got everything he wanted upon assuming the Hammers helm. The Chilean was empowered to rebuild West Ham United’s squad from scratch, without board interference. Armed with his handpicked director of football, Mario Husillos, Pellegrini captured ten signings at a net cost of over £80 million. But two obvious questions resulted: how quickly could the newbies bed in, and how quickly could David Moyes’s boys adapt to a progressive style of football? It’s impossible to answer either just yet, but after Sunday’s opener at Liverpool the early signs are far from promising.
Pellegrini asked six Moyes era survivors to coalesce with five debutants at Anfield, but neither camp appeared to know what their new manager wanted. And who could blame them?
To say that West Ham’s off-the-ball approach was confused would be a gigantic understatement. One thing’s for sure: Pellegrini certainly intended his players to employ a genuine offside trap, a relative rarity in the modern game. This, unequivocally, was a disaster for two reasons. First, any side reliant on the so-called “donkey line” must also have a cohesive press going for it. And second, the success of any cohesive press is predicated on compactness; as Arrigo Sacchi used to say, a distance of no more than 25m between defence and attack. West Ham, alas, ticked neither box and they employed the trap at all the wrong times, too.
What was not certain, however, was how Pellegrini wanted his side to behave when Liverpool possessed the football. Sometimes his system looked ultra-passive, happy to absorb pressure with a narrow back-four flanked by both wingers. Yet, at the same time, his forwards and midfielders seemed to be encouraged to press Liverpool high up the pitch. West Ham, therefore, were caught between two tactical stools. Comically large gaps persisted between their lines, that Liverpool played through for fun. With no Hammer getting touch tight and so little pressure on the ball, it’s little wonder that Pellegrini’s offside trap failed so often.
In one way, the Hammers were lucky to face Liverpool on the opening day. Because if Jurgen Klopp’s side were fully up to speed they may have cracked double figures here. Still, at least West Ham looked solid for fifteen minutes, their trap twice catching Liverpool forwards offside. But, once Klopp’s side worked out what was going on, it was bubble season at Anfield.
James Milner, whose tactical brightness arguably outshone the impressive Naby Keita, was first to figure it out. The midfielder drifted wide-right, away from Declan Rice and into the gap in front of Felipe Anderson. From there, the English midfielder twice embarrassed West Ham’s defensive line between minutes 15 and 18 — first with a lofted through-ball, and then with a cross West Ham defended far too highly. Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino took turns to break the trap, but both arrived just too late to apply a finish.
West Ham’s reprieve lasted only 60 seconds, however, as Mohamed Salah quickly picked up where he left off last season. The move that fed him started with Alisson dodging pressure from Marko Arnautovic. But the Austrian striker’s willingness to lead the press wasn’t backed up by his strewn teammates, and Joe Gomez had all the time in the world to pick out Keita between the lines. Adding insult to injury, Michail Antonio failed to track Andrew Robertson, who duly provided the assist. It took Liverpool just three passes to cut through West Ham, from goalkeeper to Salah.
Antonio, handed a start ahead of the half-fit Andriy Yarmolenko, was shockingly poor here; both on the ball and off it. The winger let Robertson go again for Mané’s first goal, which originated from the Senegalese popping up free between West Ham’s loosely-organised lines. Milner made another brilliant wide run to rescue Robertson’s cross, as a blissfully unaware Arthur Masuaku worried only about staying in line with his colleagues. Once again, West Ham’s defence had stepped up at completely the wrong time. Madness.
Just as mad was Pellegrini’s insistence that his players keep it on the floor. Going long to Antonio, to bypass Liverpool’s incessant counterpress was always an option, but it was one West Ham rarely took. Only goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, who pulled off a stunning debut save to deny Trent Alexander-Arnold, looked to pick the aerially gifted winger out.
Instead, the likes of Noble — now 31 and never the most mobile — were placed at Liverpool’s mercy. The Hammers captain traipsed in at half-time having completed only 76% of his pressurised passes. Watching Keita persistently slip behind him into the inside-left pocket can’t have been fun either.
Yet it was Rice, the more defensive of West Ham’s two holding midfielders, who got the hook at the break. Intent upon hauling his side back into a match that was already beyond them, Pellegrini replaced the young Irishman with Robert Snodgrass. That meant a holding midfield duo of Noble and Jack Wilshere; a one-paced recipe for disaster. No surprise then that Firmino popped up free between the lines to assist Liverpool’s third goal. Once again, West Ham’s non-existent defensive structure allowed Liverpool to cut through with just three passes. Once again, Milner drifted right, away from Noble to collect a pass. And, once again, the starting position of West Ham’s offside line was too deep, gifting Firmino acres of space to pick the final pass. Although, on this occasion, the goalscorer Mané was actually offside; undetected by the referee’s assistant!
Such dark humour won’t console Hammers fans, who saw a familiar Achilles heel — set-piece defence — offer up Liverpool’s late fourth goal. Only two sides were worse than West Ham at repelling dead-balls last season, and Ryan Fredericks’s keenness to fit in saw him gift Daniel Sturridge a free run at the back-post. West Ham conceded six other shooting opportunities from set-piece situations throughout the game; just one of many areas Pellegrini desperately needs to tighten up.
Final third interplay could use some work too, while he’s at it. The Chilean made two further attack-minded substitutions throughout the second-half, but neither improved West Ham’s 4-2-3-1 as an offensive force. Antonio’s near-miss from a corner was the Hammer’s only penalty-area strike of the entire second period.
A walk in the park then for Liverpool, who enjoyed the luxury of treating the final half-hour as a veritable training exercise. One of only three sides to outspend the Hammers this summer, Klopp’s side have now put four past the East End club on four consecutive occasions. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112