Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Shorn of nine senior players, West Ham United nonetheless edged out Leicester City prior to Mark Noble’s ill-judged lunge. That the Foxes required a massive last-minute deflection to restore parity speaks highly of Manuel Pellegrini’s hamstrung Hammers, whose growing cohesion confers great credit on the under-fire Chilean.
The first 10 minutes were dicey for the visitors, however, as Claude Puel’s side forced West Ham to relive their most recent road trip. Brighton pressed the Hammers surprisingly high throughout a 1-0 victory prior to the international break, and Pellegrini’s new-look defence simply could not play through.
So it proved here too, as Leicester looked to win the ball high and target West Ham’s right-flank at every opportunity. With England’s Ben Chilwell overlapping diligently beyond him, Marc Albrighton capitalised on a rare start with an influential performance. Cutting into the pocket behind Mark Noble, onto his right foot, the 28-year-old delivered two exceedingly dangerous crosses in the opening minutes. One very nearly resulted in a Fabien Balbuena own goal, were it not for Lukasz Fabianski’s acrobatic intervention. And the other saw West Ham’s back-four render a sweeping Kelechi Iheanacho finish moot by catching the Nigerian striker offside.
Pellegrini’s insistence upon facing wide deliveries with a risky offside trap has seen his side come acropper several times already this season; most notably throughout the opening day thrashing at Liverpool. Now, however, this policy appears to be finally bearing fruit. West Ham went on to catch Leicester forwards offside a further six times, five of which occurred in the second-half when the Hammers’ backs were firmly to the wall.
In total, Leicester had rained 46 crosses in on West Ham’s back-four by game’s end; the discipline required to hold a line on the edge of one’s penalty area, under such concerted pressure, is not to be sniffed at. Albrighton delivered 23 of them, eight in the first-half and a whopping 15 from the right-flank after half-time. Arthur Masuaku, a left-back who continually displays sub-elite level defensive instincts, again must carry the can for sleeping on the job. Belatedly, on 75 minutes, Pellegrini eventually felt compelled to introduce Aaron Cresswell and move the Congolese up a slot to left-wing.
Grady Diangana made way to facilitate that change after an impactful maiden Premier League start. Although his defensive hold on Chilwell waned after half-time, the 20-year-old had already eked West Ham’s opener out of the England left-back by that point. Collecting an excellent forward pass from Balbuena on the half-turn, Diangana rolled his too-tight marker to earn Felipe Anderson’s decisive free-kick. Daniel Amartey, predictably, lost Declan Rice at the back-post. Balbuena, running off a flat-footed Wilfried Ndidi, past Harry Maguire, did the rest.
Neither Leicester nor West Ham have exactly been paragons of defensive rectitude when it comes to set-pieces this season. And, despite earning the lead from a dead-ball, West Ham arguably looked more vulnerable to conceding from that avenue. Prior to half-time, after Noble’s eminently avoidable dismissal, both Iheanacho and Victor Iborra missed clear-cut chances from set-pieces. And Harry Maguire rattled the woodwork from a corner midway through the second-half, too. Slack marking, allied with James Maddison’s quality of delivery, was the story in all cases.
Still, aside from Albrighton’s regular right-wing service, West Ham were steadfast in their refusal to give much away in open-play. Having wrested control of midfield from Leicester after the Foxes’ impressive opening salvo, the likes of Declan Rice had the bit firmly between their teeth. Rice completed a combined total of seven tackles and interceptions in the first-half, reducing Maddison’s influence on proceedings, and helping his side to force Puel’s back.
Possession stood more or less at 50/50 when Michael Oliver served Noble his marching orders, in a game where both sides pressed high at restarts and played with a positive outlook. Only a pair of ineffectual attacking focal points, in Iheanacho and West Ham’s Chicharito, let some good approach play down. The out-and-out goalscorers finished the first-half with 14 and 15 touches respectively, in a 45-minute spell where the more rounded talents of Marko Arnautovic and Jamie Vardy were sorely missed.
Ruled out, apparently, due to illness, Vardy’s half-time arrival therefore came as a surprise to no-one. Heralding a Puel switch to 4-4-2, the 31-year-old’s introduction forced West Ham’s already-narrow back-four into an even tighter configuration. With the flanks surrendered to them, both Chilwell and Albrighton threatened. And Vardy should have headed home one of the latter’s many crosses, after nipping ahead of Issa Diop at the near-post. But, for the most part, West Ham’s all-behind-the-ball defensive unit held back the blue-and-white tide.
Puel promptly abandoned 4-4-2 after only 15 minutes by introducing Demarai Gray on the left of midfield. But the profligate winger again flattered to deceive, even if his arrival did allow Maddison to make a profitable return to his preferred number-10 position.
The former Norwich City midfielder, who had created more Premier League chances than any other Englishman prior to this weekend, began to pepper both touchlines with pinpoint diagonals. The flood of crosses into the Hammers box duly increased, but only Ndidi’s heavily-deflected long-ranger denied the visitors a famous backs-to-the-wall victory.
Having dumped the 3-4-1-2 that capitulated to Arsenal on Monday after just one game, Puel was lucky to get out of jail here. There is an unavoidable sense that the Frenchman is fumbling around in the dark for a consistent winning formula that continues to elude him. His policy of maintaining faith in perennial underperformers like Amartey and the presently-suspended Wes Morgan, while overlooking the likes of Shinji Okazaki and Albrighton, looks more and more foolish by the week.
Pellegrini, on the other hand, looks far closer to striking the right balance. After losing their first four games with the Chilean’s hand on the tiller, the Hammers have avoided defeat in four of their last six since switching to 4-3-3. Rice has been a revelation at the base of midfield, and the central defensive partnership formed by Balbuena and Diop looks extremely robust indeed.
Even Robert Snodgrass, called again to deputise for Pedro Obiang in West Ham’s understaffed central midfield, is performing out of his skin in an unfamiliar position. Save of course for a Masuaku-shaped blind spot, West Ham fans can therefore rest safe in the knowledge that Pellegrini is using the players at his disposal appropriately. Can Foxes fans say the same?
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