West Ham somehow managed to drop points against a horrific Sunderland side, thanks in large part to a pair of disastrous errors from Darren Randolph. The game was far from a tactical masterpiece, nonetheless, a few small things stood out. Both teams deployed central players in wide positions, to limited success. Each also played a sort of “false two” up front, with a recognized striker playing wide to allow a center forward to break through and attack.
It’s difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for both managers. The tactical plan for both teams amounted to “Do your jobs and don’t mess up”. Needless to say, this was more than either team could manage. This isn’t to say the game was a total waste. Both Robert Snodgrass and Whabi Khazri showed brilliant flashes of set piece quality, contributing two goals. Neither member of the midfield pair was actively atrocious for West Ham, and Andre Ayew showed his quality with a tidy reaction finish.
A match with 4 goals and a red card looks exciting on paper, but the truth is, this match was short on quality. West Ham are devoid of confidence, and Sunderland are devoid of talent. The end result was the sort of game that shaves years off of fans lives.
Sunderland started with a 4-3-3 lineup. Young Jordan Pickford impressed in goal, playing with the talent of an Englishman not yet crushed by outrageous pressure and crucified by the tabloid press. In front of him, John O’Shea brought his experience and tactical knowledge alongside the athletic prowess of Jason Denayer.
A little more on Denayer, the young Belgian has actually matured rather impressively this season, and at only 21, he could be a decent option for West Ham. When Sunderland signed him on loan from Man City, few took notice, but an injury crisis forced him into midfield, where his passing and possession abilities matured somewhat. Now he’s playing in the heart of the back four, and while it’s difficult to show quality in a struggling side, Denayer has performed with enough quality to continue in the top flight next season.
On the other hand, two players who aren’t suited for the Premier League lined up on the flanks of defense. Billy Jones has somehow played over a hundred Premier League games, despite never really impressing. Javier Manquillo, alongside him is in his second loan stint in the Premier League. On loan from Atletico Madrid, Manquillo was played on his weaker left hand side. The Spaniard is a decent player, but, at the risk of resorting to cliches, isn’t a good fit for the Premier League’s style of play.
In the center, Didier N’Dong had a poor day. The Gabonese midfielder is undoutably a quality player, but he’s been a let down this season. Lee Cattermole was slightly rusty, but added steel to the Black Cats’ midfield. Darron Gibson had the honor of being the best player named Darron on the field.
The noticeable tactical ploy from David Moyes was on the wings. Jermain Defoe lead the line, while Whabi Khazri and Victor Anichebe set up out wide. Khazri was finally released from a long exile to the sidelines, and showed some flashes of quality. Meanwhile, on the left hand side, Anichebe raised some eyebrows. More on that in a bit.
West Ham Lineup:
West Ham started with the same back four that had kept a clean sheet against Swansea. Darren Gibson kept his place in goal, while Jose Fonte and James Collins combined to create an experienced partnership. That’s a nice way of saying the pair have the mobility of a beached whale. Arthur Masuaku kept his spot after a strong performance against Swansea, while Sam Byram looked set to carry on his fantastic form. Needless to say, the pair looked like they were playing with their shoes tied together.
In midfield, Cheikhou Kouyate maintained his place after scoring a stunner against the Swans. While the Senegalese captain is a very good footballer, it’s difficult to pin down his exact role in the side. He’s more attacking than a defensive midfielder, but more defensive than a center mid. As it stands, he sort of just roams up and down the field without a defined role. Alongside him, Edimilson Fernandes came in for the suspended Mark Noble, and seemed under strict orders to play it safe. 49 of the Swiss youngsters 51 passes were short.
WIth Michail Antonio out for the rest of the season, Manuel Lanzini was pushed out wide, while Robert Snodgrass came into the side. In the middle, Andre Ayew played as a second striker, starting behind Andy Carroll. The record signing made runs off of Carroll, looking to break in behind the defense.
Center forwards and Target Man Wingers
The two big tactical choices were unique second striker plans. Each side set up with one striker in the middle, and one playing in an unusual position. For West Ham, this was Andre Ayew as a center forward. In Sunderland’s case, this was Victor Anichebe as a left midfielder.
West Ham’s plan was simple. Carroll drew the defensive focus, and Ayew exploited the space. It worked well on the first goal, as Carroll stepped out, scuffed an attempted volley and the ball fell to Ayew, who took a great touch and then finished.
After that moment, Ayew was less involved in the game, moving further and further forward. As the game became stretched and sloppier, Ayew quickly moved into the position of a true striker. The attacking setup became somewhat ineffective, as the front four lacked width and quick movement.
So far as Sunderland’s tactical gambit goes, there’s not a whole lot to talk about. Anichebe has, throughout his career, played as a striker. However, he has played on the wing before, and while it seems strange at first glance, there’s a bit of logic to the choice. Fans of Italian football will have noticed Juventus trying a similar strategy with Mario Mandzukic. The idea of a target man winger is not necessarily a new one, in fact in the distant past, the idea of a big man out wide was normal.
The system requires hard work from Anichebe, who had to perform greater defensive duties than he will have been accustomed too. However, at its best, it creates an offensive overload and opens up space for Defoe.
The other key tactical change was the positioning of wide players when in possession. Sunderland set up with an extremely cautious approach, while West Ham looked to take the game to the opposition.
On both flanks, West Ham pushed high, allowing wide players to step inside, and trusting Byram and Masuaku to provide width. It was an ineffective approach, with the narrow attack producing little and the defenders somewhat useless as attacking options. In fact, West Ham only attempted eight crosses all game. Given the aerial prowess of Kouyate, Ayew and Carroll, as well as the crossing ability of Snodgrass, this is a disappointing failure.
For Sunderland, things were quite straightforward. The plan was simple. Whabi Khazri would cross into Anichebe, who would knock down towards Defoe. Plan B was for Defoe to cut inside and Khazri to slot the ball into him, or cut it back to Gibson or N’Dong. In truth, it was an intelligent move from Moyes. It got the ball at the feet of his best crosser, and allowed him to put the ball in dangerous places. It also put Anichebe, Defoe, and N’Dong in the most likely scoring positions.
This further manifested itself in Lee Cattermole playing Left Center mid, and sliding wide to cover for Anichebe. It also meant that with three right footed players on the left hand side, meaning the attacking plan was decidedly lopsided.
It was, to some extent, effective. Khazri hit 9 crosses, and only one was effective. However, according to Opta, he created 5 chances with various short passes in and around the box. The result was the lone effective action of Sunderland’s attack.
The final point worth noting is the substitutions of the managers. This isn’t so much about noting tactics as it is the lack thereof. Both managers displayed confused, reactionary mindsets in their substitutions, and in the end it worked out for Sunderland.
The first change came in the seventy sixth minute. After a long spell of useless play, and with his side losing 2-1, David Moyes brought on Adnan Januzaj. At this point, there is no practical benefit to play Januzaj. He doesn’t score goals, he doesn’t get assists, and he doesn’t work hard defensively. It seems likely that Januzaj came on simply because he was one of only two attacking options on Sunderland’s bench.
Next West Ham made a reactionary move. By bringing on Havard Nordtveit for Robert Snodgrass, West Ham unbalanced the team. Suddenly Ayew was forced out wide, while the midfield had to play deeper. The choice left the team out of shape for the remainder of the game.
Sunderland at this point attempted a random roll of the dice, throwing on Fabio Borini for Billy Jones. It ended up working out, with the Italian scoring the equalizer, but the move had no real purpose. It was just putting on another offensive player and hoping for the best.
With the score leveled, Sunderland then put on Lamine Kone for Javier Manquillo, again, a nonsense reactionary sub. It was a move made even more bizarre by the fact that Sunderland had a golden opportunity to grab three points.
West ham responded in kind by bringing on Jonathan Calleri. There is no explanation for this substitution. It was simply a case of Bilic turning to his bench and looking for a striker.
It was a game without much to notice tactically. The match was decided by individual brilliance and individual failure. In the end, a few things were worth noting.
Firstly, Sunderland lack quality, but aren’t a bad team. They feature plenty of decent players, they simply lack the consistency or talent to win games. David Moyes is struggling, but he deserves the chance to rebuild in the Championship.
Secondly, Andre Ayew is at his best in a central position. He’s not quite a striker, but playing in a mobile spot just behind Carroll, he should be able to excel. Given that he cost an outrageous sum, the club should prioritize getting the best out of him over the next weeks.
Finally, this match displayed the importance of a consistent tactical plan over the course of a season. Sunderland and West Ham are two teams that lack identities and it showed on Saturday. WIthout a style, teams can quickly slip into inconsistency.