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Manuel Pellegrini has had a mixed time so far at West Ham United, after an abysmal start to the campaign which saw him lose four out of the first four opening games, however, the Chilean has managed to stable the ship somewhat with a couple of positive results even against some of the league’s heavy weights. We will now take a look at how he has managed to turn West Ham’s fortunes around when just a few months ago he looked likely to be given the sack.

After being announced as West Ham manager, Pellegrini set about installing his brand of attacking football at the London stadium. Initially, he experimented with the 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 formations that he had used to such good effect at both Villareal and Manchester City but was unable to achieve similar results with West Ham. Eventually, partly due to injuries to Davidson Sanchez and Jack Wilshere and partly due to constant experimentation, he came upon the 4-3-3 that he currently uses and so far it has worked a treat. Unlike the first four games, Pellegrini now has a consistency of selection and tactics that has brought an aura of calm and confidence to the team.

Since claiming their first win of the season away at Everton, West Ham have stuck with the 4-3-3 system that got the job done with minimal changes in personnel, usually enforced by injuries or suspensions.

West Ham (4-1-4-1): Lukasz Fabianski; Pablo Zabaleta, Diop, Balbuena, Masuaku; Rice; Noble, Obiang, Felipe Anderson, Yarmolenko; Marko Arnautovic

Attacking System

West Ham generally attack in a 4-3-3 shape and unlike his Manchester City team, Pellegrini’s men channel the majority of their attacks down the flanks. This is due in part to the fact that none of the midfield three are particularly creative and cannot be trusted to create chances with any regularity . While Noble can occasionally come up with an exquisite through ball, his strengths lie elsewhere in winning and maintaining possession.

West Ham generally play with inverted wingers in Felipe Anderson and, before his injury, Andriy Yarmolenko on the right and left hand sides respectively. The inverted proclivities of West Ham’s wingers allow them to create some interesting tactical possibilities.

So far, West Ham have shown a preference for attacking down the left hand side in order to make use of the pace and direct dribbling ability of Felipe Anderson on that side. The Brazilian however is more of a winger-creator than a wing forward, and so loves going on diagonal dribbling runs which then open up the space for the fullback to bomb on and attack the byline. This is also evident on the right hand side with the aging Zabaleta constantly attacking the touchline to put crosses into the box.

West Ham generally seek to create triangles on either flank using the fullback, winger and the near-side central midfielder. This is usually able to create overloads of 3 v 2 and sometimes even 3 v 1 on the wing, allowing West Ham to release either the winger or the full back for a cross.

Anderson vs Man United
Build up to Anderson’s goal vs Manchester United. See how West Ham create the overload on the right hand side before releasing Zabaleta for the low cross for Anderson’s finiish

Generally speaking, Pellegrini’s West Ham are a counter attacking side, and they thrive on exploiting the spaces that the opposition leave as they go forward. When West Ham are defending, the wingers initially track the opposition fullbacks until they enter West Ham’s defensive third. When that happens, unless the ball is on their side, the winger will let the fullback go and position himself in anticipation of a counter attack, usually in the half-space.

The moment that West Ham win the ball back, they are already on their way with the opposition full back trailing behind them. This is exactly how they destroyed Everton for their first win of the season

Yarmolenko vs Everton
Yarmolenko’s opening goal vs Everton. Due to his starting position in front of the full back when Everton had possession, he had a head start when the counter attack began and was able to apply the finish at the end

It is perhaps instructive that their best results this season have come against teams that came out to attack West Ham, thereby opening up space for the Hammers to exploit on the counter attack.

Defensive System

When defending, West Ham generally set up in a 4-1-4-1 midfield block, except in the game against Chelsea when they were forced into a low block for large periods of the game. Usually, the wingers tuck in beside the two central midfielders to form a line of four behind the lone striker Marko Arnautovic, with Declan Rice guarding the space between the lines.

West Ham defense vs Chelsea
West Ham’s go-to defensive shape so far this season: a 4-1-4-1 with Rice at the base of the midfield protecting the space between the lines

West Ham rarely start pressing their opponents high up the pitch, preferring instead to start applying pressure on the ball once it arrives in midfield. They combine this with a moderate offside trap which they utilize effectively. Essentially, they are able to constrict the space available to the opponent and force turnovers either by outright ball recoveries or by catching opposition strikers offside.

Though such a tactic might seem a little risky – and there have been close calls – it is instructive that West Ham have rarely conceded as a result of through balls in behind the defence so it does seem to be effective.

Problems

Defensively, the problems that West Ham face are probably as a result of their offensive success and the counter attacking tendencies of the team. The fact that West Ham’s wingers are not especially defensive-minded and don’t always track opposition fullbacks all the way means that the opponent can at certain times create wide overloads against their fullbacks and attack the box with crosses.

This has been shown to be costly. West Ham have had trouble defending crosses so far this season and have conceded a lot of goals from crossing situations both from set pieces and from open play. It is understandable if occasionally the opponent can create a free man out wide because the attackers have to conserve energy for the attacking moments. West Ham’s defenders must do better in defending crosses though. Perhaps this is something that will improve with time as the back four gets to know each other better.

Offensively, West Ham would greatly benefit from the presence of a true offensive midfielder, someone in the shape of Manuel Lanzini or perhaps, Samir Nasri – if he signs. Their consistent desire to attack down the flanks can leave them a little one dimensional and predictable against a compact defense. The presence of someone like Lanzini and his creativity would give them more variety and possibilities to attack the centre. A knock-on effect of this would be that the opposition would no longer be able to concentrate their efforts on stopping the wingers, thereby enabling them to be all the more effective.

Conclusion

West Ham are a team chock full of quality from back to front. Despite starting the season badly in losing their first four games, the Hammers have rallied and have only lost thrice in the last eight. However, with the investment put into the team and the pedigree of the manager at the helm, there is still a sense that the team are under performing and a mid-table finish would not exactly be meeting expectations.

Pellegrini seems to have found a system that gets the best out the players at his disposal but there are still problems and area that require improvement. If West Ham can improve their defending on crosses and find ways to attack the central channels better, then they might just break into the European places come the end of May.

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