How will West Ham look under Lopetegui?

By Alex Keble 23 May 2024
Lopetegui WHU

Alex Keble analyses the tactics of Hammers' new head coach and the changes he will implement

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Alex Keble looks at what West Ham United can expect from their new head coach Julen Lopetegui.

West Ham have found their new head coach and, at first glance, he is the progressive sophisticate that supporters wanted.

Lopetegui was a big hit at Sevilla, securing three consecutive top-four finishes and winning the UEFA Europa League before taking Wolverhampton Wanderers from the foot of the Premier League to a comfortable midtable finish in 2022/23.

But although Lopetegui’s tactics are an aesthetic upgrade to the low block and cagey football of his predecessor David Moyes, this appointment may not please the West Ham supporters who want to see attacking football at London Stadium.

See: Spanish football expert chronicles Lopetegui's career

Lopetegui teams are solid but unspectacular; possession-based but slow; high-flying but low-scoring. He has never been seen as an attack-minded coach.

The headline stat: Lopetegui sides scored 181 goals in 131 LaLiga matches at Real Madrid and Sevilla, averaging 1.38 goals per game. Moyes’s West Ham have scored 248 goals in 169 Premier League matches since his return, averaging 1.47 per game.

Lopetegui in LaLiga v Moyes's second spell at West Ham
  Matches Goals Goals/match
Lopetegui 131 181 1.38
Moyes 169 248 1.47

There is more to entertainment and aesthetics than goals – but not much more.

Goals are a good indication of how much fun your team are having, and although Wolves fans are grateful for the job Lopetegui did, few would describe the football – the 23 goals in 23 league matches - as entertaining.

Nevertheless, Lopetegui has a strong track record and the tactics he will use at West Ham will be a welcome change.

Possession football and low-scoring matches

There are two core principles that Lopetegui follows: defensive sturdiness and possession.

Using a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 shape, he expects his team to dominate the ball by circulating short passes around defence and midfield, aiming to keep the other team away from goal: suffocation through possession.

This low-tempo way of playing tends to bring low-scoring matches as a sturdy defence is matched with a safety-first policy on the ball. There is a reason why Lopetegui was selected to be Vicente del Bosque’s replacement as Spain manager.

Sevilla’s defence peaked in the final season, when they conceded fewer goals than anyone else, with 30, and kept a remarkable 22 clean sheets.

Sevilla stats and league rank under Lopetegui
  19/20 20/21 21/22
Possession 57.9% (3rd) 60.9% (2nd) 59.4% (3rd)
Goals conc. 34  (3rd) 33 (3rd) 30 (1st)
xG Against*  36.1 (3rd) 34.8 (1st) 36.9 (3rd)

*Expected Goals Against

This was not done by sitting back. Sevilla held a midblock, not a low one, and were strong counter-pressers.

But once they got the ball back they didn’t often look to exploit space in the transition, which makes Lopetegui something of an outlier in the modern game.

Instead, his Sevilla team would recycle the ball – hence those low goalscoring numbers.

Sevilla's goals stats and league rank
Season xG* Goals
19/20 53.2 (5th) 54 (5th)
20/21 54.4 (5th) 53 (7th)
21/22 42.4 (11th) 53 (6th)

*Expected Goals

Wolves were on their way to emulating Sevilla tactics

This continued at Wolves, who scored 23 goals in 23 Premier League matches under Lopetegui. During his time in charge they had the league’s lowest xG tally, with 22.1, and created the fewest "big chances", with 21.

This, again, was the result of safe and cautious possession.

Wolves averaged 50.2 per cent possession, struggling to retain the ball as Lopetegui would like. However, during his time at the club, their number of 10+ open-play passing sequences (227) and number of passes per sequence (3.49) were only bettered by the "Big Six" and Brighton & Hove Albion, suggesting it wasn’t for lack of trying.

At West Ham, who are keen to progress from Moyes’s tactics, Lopetegui will be expected to implement his possession-based game to something closer to the 60 per cent mark.

Unlike at Wolves, he will have the time and resources to do so.

Switches, flying full-backs and midfield rotations

There were some minor differences between Lopetegui's Sevilla and Wolves teams that we will come to, but predominantly they played in a similar way even when it came to the finer details.

From that base of slow possession football and strong counter-pressing, Lopetegui teams rely upon flying full-backs providing the width, a narrow midfield rotating the ball, and plenty of diagonal switches to create crossing situations.

All that possession recycling tends to move the pitch inwards, both for Lopetegui’s team and the opponent, which is why from here you see switches of play that aim to get the ball out wide for a cross.

Sevilla stats and league rank
Season Switches Completed crosses into box
2019/20 384 (2nd) 110 (2nd)
2020/21 384 (1st) 122 (1st)
2021/22 312 (1st) 112 (3rd)

Across his 23 matches in charge of Wolves, they made the fourth-most switches, with 90, but were all the way down in 14th for completed crosses into the box, with 88, reflecting how much Lopetegui had to adapt on the fly.

Do West Ham have 'Lopetegui players'?

West Ham have the players to pull off those midfield rotations and long switches - Lucas Paqueta, Edson Alvarez and James Ward-Prowse have a perfect blend of quality in the centre.

But the flying full-backs and all those crosses might require an upgrade. Full-backs are so important to Lopetegui’s attacks that he converted winger Jesus Navas into a right-back at Sevilla, and so the new head coach may want more attacking and aggressive options than Vladimir Coufal and Emerson.

Perhaps he will convert Maxwel Cornet back into a left-back, where he played regularly for Lyon in the 2020/21 season, or even given Michail Antonio another go at right-back, where he used to play before being turned into a striker by Moyes.

As for the wingers, Said Benrahma could have the door opened to him again. He is the kind of inverted winger and calmer playmaker that Lopetegui prefers to direct dribblers who risk giving possession away.

West Ham’s longstanding problem with finding a goalscoring No 9 will be familiar to Lopetegui, who has rarely had a reliable striker.

Jackson Martinez scored 21 league goals in Lopetegui’s single year at FC Porto in 2014/15, while at Sevilla the best return was Youssef En-Nesyri’s 18 in 2020/21.

That means he will be able to cope without one, although there is a more exciting read available: if West Ham can find a true goalscorer – or perhaps if Jarrod Bowen can step up in a more progressive, high-line team – then maybe Lopetegui’s historic goalscoring issues will disappear.

Adaptability and reactivity

Although we can predict the broad approach, we ought to note that Lopetegui adapted significantly to the unique challenge of taking Wolves off the foot of the table.

As mentioned above, Wolves held less possession than his Sevilla team, and as a consequence they were a little bit more direct, often even losing the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 shape in favour of a 4-4-2 that allowed the ball to be shifted quickly into the forward line.

Across the final 23 matches of the season following Lopetegui’s arrival, Wolves attempted the fourth-most long balls, with 1,331, reflecting that pragmatism in creating crossing scenarios.

Indeed, adaptability and reactivity are defining principles of Lopetegui’s. He is renowned for his meticulously detailed preparation for the upcoming opponent, spending multiple days on analysis as he looks for opposition flaws.

This can lead to dramatic alterations to how the team play from match to match and has earned him a reputation as a superb tactician, not unlike Aston Villa’s Unai Emery.

However, the flip side is that Lopetegui teams can look a little too structured, lacking imagination or individuality when the heavily-systematised formation starts to go stale.

In other words, he can be guilty of drilling his team too well. Certainly his level of discipline and rigour contributed to a quick demise at Real Madrid.

Will fans take to Lopetegui's style?

There are many upsides to appointing Lopetegui, but when your club yearn for attacking football the tactical approach probably isn’t one of them.

Only Chelsea and AFC Bournemouth scored fewer goals in the Premier League than Wolves' 23 during Lopetegui’s time in charge, while they ranked 19th in the table for shots, with 235, and shots on target, with 76.

Most alarming of all, Wolves had a higher xG than their opponent in just five of their 23 league games under Lopetegui.

But xG isn’t the be-all and end-all. There is no doubt he did a fine job at Wolves – and at Sevilla, who didn’t score many goals but didn’t concede many either.

Matches where Sevilla scored or conceded 2+ goals
Season Scored 2+ goals Conc. 2+ goals
2019/20 4 2
2020/21 6 2
2021/22 5 2

Lopetegui teams are pragmatic and cautious, knowing their limitations and seeking to control matches with patient, steady possession that minimises chances at both ends of the pitch.

It might well succeed, and the higher defensive line and graceful Spanish passing game are certainly nicer to look at than what went before. It just isn’t necessarily what West Ham fans were asking for.

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