Moyes' revenge? Why Man Utd might struggle against unsexy West Ham

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David Moyes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Man Utd West Ham GFX
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The Scot has never got one over on his former employers since being sacked in 2014 but he has an excellent chance to secure a first win on Saturday

That West Ham have received so little media attention shows just how unfashionable David Moyes has become.

We are quick to praise the tactical sophistication of Ralph Hasenhuttl, or the intricate attacking patterns weaved by Nuno Espirito Santo, but unsexy West Ham get nothing – despite being above both Southampton and Wolves in the table.

West Ham are fifth in the Premier League and four points off the top after recording three consecutive victories. They have made their best start to a season since the Dimitri Payet-inspired 2015-16 campaign, in which they finished seventh.

West Ham supporters, then, have every right to feel a little aggrieved about the lack of praise bestowed upon Moyes, whose reputation seemingly remains tarnished by his disastrous spell at Manchester United.

Their start has been particularly impressive considering how ominous things looked on the eve of the new season, when, struggling in the transfer market, West Ham faced an opening seven fixtures from which they won zero points the year before.

Moyes has upset the odds as much as anyone in the Premier League this season and, based on the success of their new formation, West Ham stand a good chance of causing an upset against United on Saturday.

The Scot deploys a relatively old-school tactical system, relying on a deep and sturdy defensive blockade with quick – and often long-ball – counterattacks that aim to catch out the opposition in the transition.

He is happy for his side to concede the vast majority of possession: 42.5 per cent on average in 2020-21, with only Sheffield United and Newcastle United seeing less of the ball than the Hammers.

From a deep and compressed blockade, coached meticulously by Moyes to ensure there are minimal gaps for the probing opponent to exploit, West Ham look to break via Declan Rice’s distribution to the forwards.

Either Michail Antonio’s strength and movement sees the ball moved quickly in behind and down the flanks, or breaks are built through Pablo Fornals and Jarrod Bowen as they dip infield from the wings to interact with the striker.

Declan Rice West Ham GFX

It is a simple approach, and before the current campaign one that most opposition managers could deal with, hence the growing concern over Moyes’s future before we kicked off in September. But things changed on September 19, after a 2-1 defeat at Arsenal in which Moyes found a new formation to take West Ham up a gear.

Last year, individual defensive errors would often let West Ham down, undoing 89 minutes of dogged defensive work, while Antonio could often find himself isolated up front as the wingers were dragged back into that hunched defensive shape. With Antonio unable to hold up the ball, West Ham would come under constant pressure, eventually caving.

Following a 2-0 defeat to Newcastle on the opening day, Moyes addressed these issues by switching to a 5-4-1 formation. In this system, the extra centre-back and ultra-deep wing-backs have seen the defensive errors diminish; Fabian Balbuena and Angelo Ogbonna both look more comfortable with smaller areas to defend.

This system also means the wingers, Bowen and Fornals, can hold higher starting positions even as the opposition hogs the ball, meaning they are closer to Antonio when a turnover occurs. West Ham’s counters now have a three-pronged focus, helping move them up the pitch and create more evenly contested games.

The addition of Tomas Soucek in midfield has also given the Hammers a composure, strength, and positional discipline they lacked when Mark Noble was in this position.

Perhaps most significantly of all, Moyes has deployed Aaron Cresswell as an overlapping centre-back, borrowing from Chris Wilder to give West Ham a new, unpredictable edge.

Cresswell picks his moments well, supporting Arthur Masuaku (who is far less vulnerable with an extra defender behind him) by arriving, unexpected, late in a move. This gives Cresswell the space to swing dangerous crosses into the box.

Aaron Creswell West Ham GFX

Since the switch at Arsenal, West Ham have consistently deployed the 5-4-1 – apart from in the second half of Monday night's 2-1 win over Aston Villa, which proved disastrous despite the final score line. Pinned back throughout, West Ham conceded 72% possession and 10 shots in the final 45 minutes. Moyes will surely revert to the 5-4-1 for this weekend’s game.

Nevertheless, that Villa game is a warning, and the fact they were outplayed for long periods (‘losing’ the xG battle 0.57 – 2.39) perhaps puts recent results in a different light. Narrow wins against struggling sides Fulham and Sheffield United are to be expected, and in all three games there were worrying signs of lapses of concentration.

In a 4-2-3-1, West Ham often struggled to remain compressed between the lines, their midfield neither pressing nor dropping tight to the centre-backs, and some of this crept back in against Villa.

Jack Grealish found too much space on the left, highlighting the standard concern with 5-4-1/3-4-3s; a two-man midfield can often be over-run in wide areas, especially when the wing-backs are pinned alongside the centre-backs.

This is an issue Moyes may struggle to entirely patch up long term and, in fact, his tactical approach means West Ham are likely to do better when forced into an ultra-defensive shape by top-half clubs, as opposed to the more open, and balanced, shape expected of them against the likes of Villa.

Manchester United, then, are just the sort of opponent West Ham can do well against.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s improvisational approach – giving his players the freedom to create in the moment – makes them vulnerable to being stunted by a well-organised defence. As West Ham limit space, Man Utd could quickly run out of ideas and become locked in stale sideways passing.

Fred Manchester United GFX

What’s more, Solskjaer’s side are not always good at dealing with quick counterattacks, and as their full-backs move forward to join the attack, West Ham’s Bowen, Fornals, and Antonio could find space on the outside of Man Utd’s midfield pair Fred and Scott McTominay.
 
There is certainly good reason to assume West Ham can pull off the same style of performance, and result, as in the 1-1 draw with Manchester City in October, when Pep Guardiola’s side held 70% of the ball but were largely reduced to harmless possession.

Rice was exceptional on that occasion, and could again be the key player as he looks to minimise space for Bruno Fernandes in central attacking midfield.

Then again, in the 2-1 defeat to Liverpool, West Ham began to leave gaps in between the lines as legs tired towards the end of the match, with Xherdan Shaqiri – on the edge of the D – finding space to play a through ball into Diogo Jota for the winning goal.

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Fernandes may fancy his chances of something similar, particularly with an in-form Edinson Cavani making clever runs amongst a West Ham back three that can, on occasion, still be error-prone.

And yet it feels like the sort of game West Ham will win. That’s what Moyes has done this season: create a defensively sturdy, incisive counterattacking outfit that appear capable of beating anyone on their day, meaning he has a fine chance of recording a first win over United since being fired by the club in 2014.

Of course, West Ham won’t finish the season in fifth, but with Said Benrahma, who has two assists in 64 minutes of Premier League action this season, still to be integrated into the team, there is every reason to be hopeful of Moyes' unsexy side belatedly attracting some deserved attention.

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