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Thursday 17 October 2013

Talking tactics: West Ham show ability to adapt

Adrian Clarke looks at how the Hammers have changed following Andy Carroll's injury

  • Pic 1: Maiga touches v Everton (left), Carroll touches in last home match v Reading

  • Pic 2: West Ham's formation against Everton and Tottenham Hotspur

  • Pic 3: West Ham's crosses v Newcastle

  • Pic 4: Clearances v Spurs (left), tackles v Spurs (right)

West Ham United's stunning 3-0 victory at Tottenham Hotspur almost a fortnight ago has restored belief that another top-half finish in the Barclays Premier League is on the cards. Hardworking, tactically astute and extremely effective, Sam Allardyce’s side certainly proved their capabilities at White Hart Lane, but can they maintain those lofty standards? Ahead of a home clash with Manchester City this weekend, the Hammers are probably best described as a work in progress.

Coping without Carroll

West Ham's terrific 2012/13 campaign was undeniably built around the physical prowess of Andy Carroll. Firing 27 crosses a match into the penalty box - the joint highest in the division - towards a centre-forward who won more aerial duels than anyone in the country, it was little wonder the Hammers scored 11% of their goals from inside the six-yard box, or from many of the big man’s knockdowns.

However, with the England man sidelined because of a heel problem, Allardyce has been forced to dabble with alternative formulas that can work equally well in Carroll's absence.

Winning 6.2 of his aerial battles per match (second only to Christian Benteke) Modibo Maiga appeared a good fit initially, but, as demonstrated in Pic 1 above, the Mali front man does not act as the same type of fulcrum as Carroll. Less dynamic and unable to stretch opposition defences in the same manner, Maiga's best work is done in general play rather than inside the opposition's danger zone. With no clear target to aim for with their crosses, the effectiveness of West Ham's wide men Matt Jarvis, Stewart Downing and Joe Cole has been limited.

In response, Allardyce unexpectedly experimented with a 4-5-1 "false No 9" formation against Spurs, instead of his preferred 4-2-3-1 (as illustrated in Pic 2 above), where the Hammers played without a recognised striker for the first time. Utilising the running power of Mohamed Diame, Stewart Downing, Ricardo Vaz Te and Ravel Morrison instead, West Ham absorbed lots of pressure before springing clinical counter-attacks which, as the result suggests, worked tremendously well.

The re-signing of Carlton Cole on a short-term deal this week signals Allardyce's intent to persist with the use of a powerful front man, but, in light of their success at White Hart Lane, the Hammers have a useful plan B in place.

(All per start) Aerial duels won Key Passes Assists Fouled Shots Goals
Andy Carroll (2012/13) 9.3 1.4 0.18 2.2 3.3 0.31
Carlton Cole (2012/13) 3.9 0.4 0.07 0.6 1.3 0.14
Modibo Maiga (2013/14) 6.2 0.8 0 0.3 1.5 0

Passing is not the priority

Since their return to the Barclays Premier League West Ham have exhibited far more function than flair.

The facts speak for themselves. Home and away, they have the lowest pass-completion rate of any top-flight side (73.5%) and, as table 2 below proves, they have less interest in producing short, pretty passing patterns than any rival, even if their reputation as a long-ball side is a little unfair.

With Morrison in red-hot form, flanked by technically outstanding midfielders such as Mark Noble, Kevin Nolan and Diame it is perhaps a surprise to learn how little they pop the ball around in close quarters, but most of that quartet are primarily used for their ability to break into the opposition box.

Noble is the chief orchestrator. The highest-ranked West Ham star in the EA Sports Index (73rd) averages 50 passes per match and has created 17 chances this term. His nearest challenger, man-of-the-moment Morrison, in turn makes just 26 passes each game and has fashioned only four opportunities for others.

Unusually the Hammers are showing greater confidence in possession away from home. Boasting more of the ball than they get at Upton Park (46.1% compared to 42.1%) and playing a significantly more patient brand of football, the team is manoeuvring the ball into crossing positions with far greater regularity, as displayed in image three above.  

Passing may not be one of the team's strengths but their willingness to put the ball into the opposition penalty area bodes well, as long as they have enough bodies charging forward to get on the end of the deliveries.

(All per game) Crosses
Short passes Long passes
HOME 18 (17th in PL)
264 (20th) 63 (8th)
25 (4th)
297 (20th) 63 (11th)

Teamwork and aerial power

West Ham's team is greater than the sum of its parts - and that is just the way that Sam Allardyce likes it.

Expertly organised on the training ground the Hammers are well drilled without the ball, collecting clean sheets in four of their seven matches to date, including three away from home. Retreating as a side they have learned to plug holes better than most and with 53% of opponents’ shots taken from outside the box, they are statistically the third-best team in the division at protecting their own penalty area.

West Ham have little choice but to defend deep because of a lack of pace at the back, but, with Winston Reid and James Collins making 9.1 and 8.5 clearances a match respectively, the side are happy to sit back and soak up pressure. As highlighted in PIc 4 above this was something they did especially well against Spurs.

With or without Carroll the Hammers' greatest strength is still in the air. As long as that continues do not expect Allardyce to alter dramatically his tactical approach.

TABLE 3: west ham's dominance in the air
(All per game) Aerial duels won (home)
Aerial duels won (away) Aerial duels won (overall)
27 (2nd in PL)
15.3 (6th)
20.3 (4th)
21.9 (2nd)
20.3 (2nd)
21.1 (2nd)

Final thought

Carroll’s injury woes have affected heavily West Ham's attacking threat this season, especially on home turf, but thanks to excellent teamwork and a focus on using their best assets they are again holding their own in the Barclays Premier League.

If Allardyce can settle on his preferred starting XI and quickly discover a pattern of play that suits them at Upton Park, while maintaining their excellent defending on their travels, the Hammers should enjoy another competitive campaign.

West Ham United host Manchester City in the Barclays Premier League on 19 October. For more details about that match, just click on this Matchday Live link.

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke is a former professional footballer who has played at all levels from Premier League down to non-League
  • Since retiring he has become a written and broadcast journalist for magazines, TV shows and for Arsenal
  • In his regular Talking Tactics column, this week he looks at the stats behind West Ham United's season so far