West Ham romped to another victory with an impressive 3-1 victory over Middlesbrough. The Irons were led by a brace from Andy Carroll, and finished the match off with a late deflected goal from the enigmatic Jonathan Calleri.
The Hammers started in a 4-4-2 formation, carrying over from the second half of the match against crystal Palace, and again, the formation provided impressive balance. Sam Byram and Aaron Cresswell pushed up the pitch quickly, giving the team impressive width. The game featured a fascinating tactical battle, with Slaven Bilic coming out comfortably on top.
The formation, on paper, was a simple 4-4-2. Michail Antonio lined up just off of Andy Carroll, with Manuel Lanzini and Sofiane Feghouli behind. The regular defense of Cresswell, Ogbonna, Reid and Byram manned the backline.
In practice however, a tactical masterclass revealed itself. The first change was on obvious, but effective one. Antonio played quite far behind Carroll, dropping back into midfield, stepping over to the flanks, and utilising his pace. Carroll stayed high, won headers, and forced the Boro defence to drop back.
In midfield, Mark Noble utilized every ounce of his stamina and speed to cover huge swaths of ground before being forced off with an injury. Pedro Obiang alongside him was afforded room to make interceptions and complete passes. With just two players in midfield, against Middlesbrough's three of De Roon, Clayton and Forshaw, The midfield could have been an area of weakness. Instead, it proved a spot of strength. The midfield dominance was a testament to the impressive work of the captain and his partner in crime.
On the flanks, Sofiane Feghouli and Manuel Lanzini pushed inside towards the middle, allowing the two to demonstrate their playmaking abilities in center. The gaps on the flanks provided by the wingers cutting in where filled by the onrushing fullbacks, allowing Cresswell and Byram to utilize their attacking strengths.
The pressure from the wings allowed West Ham to control the flanks, forcing George Friend and Calum Chambers to drop back. While Boro have a tight drilled defense, they lack attacking punch without Gaston Ramirez. By controlling the wings, and the center of midfield, West Ham ensured that Alvaro Negredo would be isolated and forced to create chances for himself.
With room on the wings to bomb forward, Middlesbrough had no choice but to step back, forming a defensive shell. This could have been an issue had Patrick Bamford, or another fast striker been playing, but Alvaro Negredo simply lacks the mobility to play on the break.
Deserving of special notice is West Ham’s set-up during attacks down the left. Aaron Cresswell swept down the pitch, flying forward in attack. To make room for the Englishman, Manuel Lanzini moved inside, Andy Carroll pushed central, and Michail Antonio stepped out to the right hand side. Sofiane Feghouli checked back almost to a central midfield position, and Sam Byram held back. Angelo Ogbonna moved to a sort of left center back position, as the team transitioned to something approaching a back 3.
This setup allowed West Ham to overload Calum Chambers on Middlesbrough's right hand side, forcing midfielders to drop back, and setting the tone for the dominating display. By placing Boro on the back foot, they negated almost any attacking threat.
By forcing a midfielder to drop back in defense, West Ham not only evened out the battle in the center of the pitch by negating Boro’s man advantage, they also put an end to whatever tactics had been set up, leaving Middlesbrough instead constantly scrambling to catch up.
The lesson from this game is clear. Playing four in defense does not leave West Ham open at the back, and it improves performances across the field. With Andy Carroll back and on top form, the Iron’s look to have found the formation to stick with going forward. Upon Andre Ayew’s return, Bilic will have a hard choice to make, and in the future, a natural striker may displace Michail Antonio, but at least until the end of the season, this formation seems an adequate solution.