ANALYSIS: Counterattacking Hammers finally break their duck

Alan O’Brien 

Old dogs don’t tend to take kindly to new tricks. So, at the age of 65, Manuel Pellegrini was never likely to be parted from his obsession with a “big-team mentality”. But chastening defeats to Liverpool and Bournemouth, suffered right at the beginning of his nascent West Ham United tenure, must have given the Chilean pause for thought. Evincing a slightly more reserved tactical outlook, the Hammers were unlucky to go away empty-handed from subsequent engagements with Arsenal and Wolves. Everton, unbeaten but brittle, represented the perfect opportunity to turn that luck — provided Pellegrini did not revert to gung-ho type.

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Fortunately for worried West Ham fans, their under-fire manager raised eyebrows by actually retrenching further. An all-new central midfield, staffed by three players rather than two, promised more defensive solidity. Declan Rice, omitted since half-time on the opening day, got the nod to shadow Gylfi Sigurdsson. Wantaway workhorse Pedro Obiang offered additional ballast to Rice’s left, while committed captain Mark Noble returned to the quasi-Irishman’s right. Such a tenacious trio bore no comparison to the immobile Carlos Sanchez-Jack Wilshere axis that toiled against Wolves a fortnight prior.

Pellegrini pivots

Yes, it was the 4-3-3 that Pellegrini favoured throughout his tenure at Hebei China Fortune. And yes, the Chilean’s preference for inverted wingers remained intact too, with Felipe Anderson restored to his more customary left-wing role and Andriy Yarmolenko handed a debut ahead of Robert Snodgrass. Pellegrini’s obsession with the offside trap, so unwisely deployed at Anfield, also (mostly) remained intact. But that’s where the familiar Pellegrini tropes ended.

Although West Ham pressed high when Jordan Pickford possessed the football, Pellegrini otherwise instructed his side to drop off and focus instead on compactness. A tally of twelve first-half interceptions tells a tale, as Marco Silva’s possession game regularly came up against a tightly-packed claret-and-blue cohort. Prior to this game, Everton had actually attempted fewer shots on goal than basement-dwelling West Ham. And the Toffees’ ineptness in the final-third could best be summed up by the following statistic: only Brighton and Huddersfield had completed fewer passes within 20 yards of the opposition goal.

Everton’s most recent encounter, a putrid 1-1 draw with David Wagner’s ultra-defensive side, neatly laid bare the problem. Shorn of Richarlison’s individual brilliance, Silva’s failure to coach potentially profitable patterns-of-play was brutally exposed. Everton managed just one shot-on-target against the Terriers, completing only two passes within 20 yards of Jonas Lossl’s goal. Set-piece frailties, long an Achilles heel of zonal-marking aficionado Silva, also cost them points again.

Overexuberance

Ironically, however, it was the Portuguese’s own “big-team mentality” that cost him here. Only Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea had engaged the opposition higher than Everton so far this season, and the Toffees have the high-line to match such an aggressive approach. But when your attacking-third forays break down so frequently, you better have a pretty good counterpress up your sleeve to compensate.

Everton didn’t, their full-backs impersonated wingers anyway, and West Ham took full advantage. Silva’s fourth- and fifth- choice centre-backs were no match for a pacey front-three that shone with space to run into. Pity poor Mason Holgate, two weeks out from being bullied by Huddersfield’s Steve Mounié; his manager’s tactical overexuberance hung both he and Kurt Zouma out to dry.

Sure, Pellegrini may still wish to inculcate a possession-based style down the road. But with players like this, born to counterattack, why bother? Marko Arnautovic lives for running off raw defenders like Holgate after all, and that’s exactly what the striker did for West Ham’s first and third goals. Sky’s David Moyes, the much-maligned manager who converted the Austrian into a striker last winter, might have afforded himself a wry smile.

Anderson too looked transformed, bombing into the always-open space behind Kenny to create three chances — a West Ham high. And Yarmolenko, although incredibly wasteful in possession at times, nonetheless earned his double by regularly motoring past the ever-advanced Lucas Digne. Both West Ham wingers, therefore, shone in attack, but neither defended with any great aplomb. Yarmolenko simply didn’t bother to track Digne; Anderson, although regularly on the scene, didn’t do enough to stop Kenny’s final balls. The Hammers full-backs performed poorly too, as both Pablo Zabaleta and Arthur Masuaku were often outpaced and outfoxed by Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Theo Walcott respectively.

Through-balls and crosses

Still, the ease with which West Ham struck their first two blows was utterly breathtaking: one poor pass from Everton, one interception from the Hammers, and the ball was in behind the Toffees’ too-high defensive line before you could say “tapping-up scandal.” For the first goal, Cenk Tosun (who also missed three presentable chances) failed to hold-up an Idrissa Gueye pass, allowing his dispossessor Fabien Balbuena to instigate a fast-break. Three passes later, and Arnautovic was behind Holgate and squaring for Yarmolenko to tap home.

The second saw West Ham’s press-high-at-restarts policy pay off, causing the supposedly technically-sound Pickford to play a hospital pass toward Morgan Schneiderlin. Noble made the facile interception, and both Digne and Zouma criminally showed Yarmolenko onto his far-stronger left foot. Schneiderlin, deservedly hooked mere minutes before half-time, also had time to present Obiang with another lofted through-ball attempt before his departure. Pickford left his goal to foil Arnautovic, but Everton’s repeated failure to close down his Spanish provider — or at least drop their defensive line accordingly — was damning.

Yet, while West Ham were threatening with through-balls, Everton were finding joy on the flanks. Here was the flipside of the freedom Silva afforded his full-backs, as both Kenny and Digne contributed several dangerous deliveries apiece. Tosun somehow contrived to head Digne’s best effort wide, after losing Issa Diop. But Sigurdsson, switched into central midfield upon Schneiderlin’s departure, arrived late in the box to connect with a Kenny effort and halve the deficit.

Rice had tracked the Icelandic talisman brilliantly prior to Silva’s tactical shift, but the 19-year-old found himself fatally attracted to his new assignment, Calvert-Lewin, when Kenny’s decisive cross rained in. Rice otherwise positioned himself brilliantly when Everton worked the ball wide, however, preventing Sigurdsson from pulling the trigger on a Digne cross shortly before Everton’s goal. The teenager used the ball wisely too, and he could reasonably ask why neither Obiang nor Noble prevented Sigurdsson from blotting the Hammers’ defensive copybook.

Conclusion

Pellegrini’s rather baffling policy of playing for offside from opposition crosses very nearly cost West Ham dearly, when Tosun’s replacement Oumar Niasse hit the bar. But, in truth, Everton disimproved markedly upon Silva’s 43rd-minute switch to 4-4-2. West Ham took full advantage of their newfound midfield superiority; despite their lead, the Hammers actually enjoyed 52% of the possession in the second-half. Everton, undermanned everywhere but the final-third, could sustain neither periods of possession nor attacks, finishing the second-half with exactly zero shots on target. West Ham’s third goal, for which Obiang popped up free behind Sigurdsson to assist Arnautovic, was arguably an even greater indictment of Silva’s premature midfield surrender.

Speaking of premature, the calls for Pellegrini’s head will surely abate now. The Chilean halted his Avram Grant-equaling losing run in emphatic fashion here, with a note-perfect counterattacking masterclass that played against type. With challenging engagements at home to both Chelsea and Manchester United imminent, Hammers fans will be hoping for more of the same. As for Everton supporters, the bloom is very much off the rose as far as Marco Silva is concerned. The lesson for them, and for club chairman Farhad Moshiri is simple: be careful what you wish for.

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One thought on “ANALYSIS: Counterattacking Hammers finally break their duck

  1. Pingback: ANALYSIS: Hardy Hammers hamper Hazard | Tactics Truck v2.0

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