A post on a result and performance to be proud of against Tottenham, Moyes coming into his own in the underdog games, and Javier Hernandez
In the early evening just before kick-off between Tottenham and West Ham, I came across an excellent Jonathan Wilson piece on the recent tactical phenomenon in the Premier League of ‘radical non-possession’. As he explains here, smaller teams’ way of getting points against bigger ones is increasingly by refusing to engage in a possession battle. Give them possession, get everyone behind the ball and hope for a chance or two on the break. This is in no small part a response to Pep Guardiola’s influence on the game, especially his Barcelona team, so effective at playing through the opposition, whether defences were packed or not. How do you beat a side playing some of the best team football that had ever been played? Wilson explains: “the examples of Inter and Chelsea in the semi-finals of 2010 and 2012 ... showed it was possible to prevail even with 20% of the ball, a lesson that swiftly passed down the leagues: against top sides, sit deep, keep the shape and worry about the ball later. Radical possession begat radical non-possession.”
Such a trend has now trickled its way down to the Premier League’s bottom half, and at an increasing rate. As Wilson summarises, there have been 38 league matches this season where one team has had at least 70% possession, compared with just three between 2003 and 2006. This cannot just be explained by the increasing financial gulf between the Premier League’s haves and have-nots, although it clearly plays a huge role. It seems a clear tactical trend (and let’s not forget West Ham have a Top 15 wage bill among European clubs), exercised by even some of Europe’s most renowned coaches.
Since joining, David Moyes has built West Ham into a team who look thoroughly adept at ‘radical non-possession’. I, for one, am not complaining; in fact, he deserves huge credit for it. He has faced members of the ‘new big six’ on four occasions during his tenure: Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. In those games, West Ham’s possession statistics were 23%, 31%, 30% and 29% respectively. Yet we have taken five points from those four games and conceded just three goals against some of the most potent attacking talents the top flight has seen in years.
The tactic has attracted derision and frustration from many sides, especially from pundits (who almost exclusively come from the bigger clubs). Can we stop bashing the strugglers for doing what is necessary to survive in the league, where these days the financial stakes are so high? Unless you actually want to do something to redress the massive difference in budget between the elite teams and the rest? Thought not.
We also have to respect how difficult it is to defend so resolutely for 90 minutes against the likes of De Bruyne, Silva, Agüero, Sterling, Özil, Sanchez, Kane and Eriksen, and credit Moyes and his team for building such a disciplined and organised unit in a relatively short space of time. This is not as simple as sticking men behind the ball and hoping for the best. It relies upon teamwork, effort and communication, upon the entire team to work together as a cohesive unit. The skill of closing a player, recovering into space and communicating with the rest of the team to cover while other players are involved in the attack is something which takes great craft and training – especially when defending against players of Tottenham’s calibre. Angelo Ogbonna for one has improved immeasurably in the centre of Moyes’ back five. And Declan Rice gave a wonderfully assured display, brimming with the confidence of having his role drilled into him and knowing where his team-mates were at all times. His performance and this result (and the others), would almost certainly not have been possible under Bilic; we conceded 11 from the same fixtures last season.
(As an aside to all this, it feels frustrating to refer to Spurs in this context as part of a ‘big’ anything, because when you compare the two clubs’ relative budgets, as well as our rivals’ path to recent success compared to the rest of the top teams, it shouldn’t necessarily be that way. As much as we may hate to admit it, we need to look to Spurs’ model of building for success as an example for ourselves.)
While Moyes, Pearce and co. have performed wonders, mastering the art of ‘radical non-possession’, we still need to look at the way the team attacks, especially with some very different fixtures ahead for the rest of the month, and ones which will be crucial to determining how our season will end.
Pedro Obiang’s goal was sensational, and he’s got it in his locker too. Remember the strike against West Brom where he came within inches of scoring the goal of the season from nearly the half-way line? The fact that we were able to score from our first shot on 70 minutes is another reminder of why we love this game so much. The sheer randomness of football at times is something other sports are simply too structured to offer (and why stats are often less reliable, let’s not forget).
Add in the 94th minute, scarcely-deserved winner against West Brom a couple of days earlier and it’s fair to say West Ham’s have had their fair share of ‘positive randomness’ over the last week (which is partly what you get for keeping Bobby Madley as far away from you as possible). The story of Napoleon picking his generals springs to mind. When presented with a candidate with thorough military tactical knowledge and managerial skill, Napoleon simply retorted: “That’s all very good, but is he lucky?”
While luck and randomness have their merits, and play their roles particularly in football, we cannot ignore the fact that the team with the most possession largely prevails, and the team who plays best usually wins. To quote legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson, “if you’ve taken care of all the details, the laws of cause and effect – not luck – will usually determine the result”. Troll wins and draws are often the sweetest, but how do West Ham become the team which, like Spurs, creates the best conditions for success?
I discussed much of this in my last blog. Briefly here, I think there is still much to be improved upon going forward, not least having a few defenders who can distribute the ball to the midfield and attack, utilising pace in wide positions and creating the conditions for more link-up play between the midfield and the striker, rather than relying on aimless long balls for the last ten minutes (at least). This will help establish Moyes’ formula for success against the bottom-half teams.
But I think it’s also time we discussed Javier Hernandez, with whom I have been disappointed in his (albeit limited) time on the pitch this season. He played during his 64 minutes on the pitch on Thursday in much the same way as his recent substitute appearances and start against Arsenal: languishing around the pitch fairly lazily, jogging into position without purpose, not working off the ball. This can be forgiven to a degree if you contribute going forward, but Hernandez lacks the ability of Andy Carroll, Michail Antonio and Marko Arnautovic to hold up the ball and bring others into the game; and lacks Diafra Sakho’s craft of carrying the ball into a channel and opening up space for others.
It was no coincidence that West Ham scored six minutes after Hernandez came off. The attack started when his replacement, Andre Ayew, took the ball, held off a defender, waiting for others to join and found a team-mate leading to Obiang’s strike – something which Hernandez had not managed to do all game. I’ve not been one to praise Ayew this season, so when you’re making less of an impact than the Ghanaian, you have to take a bit of a look at yourself.
When you find out that Chicharito is on higher wages than Harry Kane, it puts it into a bit of perspective, and you have to wonder what the Mexican is contributing to this team to justify his six-figure weekly salary. I don’t see how he helps the side right now, given the way we set up and Moyes’ clear emphasis on graft. It may seem clear that Sakho wants to leave, but I think he offers much better attributes to the line-up than Hernandez at this point.
Hopefully Moyes bares all this in mind when selecting his team away to Huddersfield next weekend, where, as well as it has done him, radical non-possession will not be the aim of the game.