Although it is too early to hit the panic button with the season just four games old, it is clear that something isn’t working at West Ham. The Hammers are the only professional team in England with no points under their belt following their fourth consecutive loss against Nuno Espirito Santo’s newly-promoted Wolverhampton.
Last time West Ham lost their first four league games was back in 2010-11 under Avram Grant. The Hammers went down at the end of that campaign.
A lot of things have to been improved, starting with record signing Felipe Anderson’s sub-par performances. But, above all, the main trouble West Ham are facing, the one that is giving manager Manuel Pellegrini the biggest of headaches is their performance in the middle of the field.
Once again, the Hammers looked defensively helpless in the middle of the park, whilst they still couldn’t provide a decent passing game. Had it not been for Lukasz Fabianski’s three saves, West Ham would have suffered a more damaging defeat than the final 0-1 scoreline.
All the couples Pellegrini has paired together in his 4-4-2 formation have looked unfit and unable to play there. Jack Wilshere is far from the player Pellegrini thought he was when he compared him to Andrea Pirlo. His passing was useless, and he also seemed off the pace. Lined up in their 3-4-2-1 system, Wolves dominated the ball in the middle of the park. Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves overplayed Wilshere and Carlos Sanchez, the midfield duo Pellegrini started with in this game. They controlled the match through possession, but worryingly West Ham allowed their rivals to have too much of the ball.
Adama Traore’s injury-time goal that sealed the hosts’ win was a clear example of this. Ruben Neves easily dispossessed Sanchez in midfield (see below), then provided a nice forward pass to Leo Bonatini, who set up Traore’s goal that beat the helpless Fabianski.
That’s not good news for a Pellegrini in a constant hunt for a shielding midfielder to pair with Wilshere. Previous failed experiments led the Chilean manager to field Sanchez in front of the defense, but it didn’t work against Wolves. Not that the Colombian has been that bad in other occasions, but he showed a worrying lack of continuity on his performances. Pellegrini has to quickly find an answer for the holding midfielder role as it could be pivotal to upgrade Wilshere’s performances too.
Jack Wilshere is fading
West Ham have suffered in midfield so far and Wilshere’s efforts are not helping. The hypothesis of a Mark Noble-Wilshere midfield duo quickly vanished after West Ham’s games against Bournemouth and Arsenal. Now, Sanchez looks problematic. However, it was just one game and the Colombian deserves other chances. By the way, it could be an option to try Pedro Obiang over there. The East London club have failed to find a replacement since the departure of Cheikhou Kouyaté to Crystal Palace in the summer. An attempt to bring in William Carvalho of Sporting Lisbon or Leander Dendoncker of Anderlecht didn’t ultimately materialise.
So, they brought in Carlos Sanchez from Fiorentina. The 32-year old midfielder is a good player, but he’s already had a failed Premier League spell under his belt dating back to his time with Aston Villa. Time will tell if Sanchez is an improved player. In the meantime, Pellegrini needs to find a solution to his midfield puzzle.
As mentioned before, Obiang could be an option. Another one could be to field a three-man midfield. But that wouldn’t resolve the problem of finding a defensive-minded midfielder, a role that could be pivotal to get the best out of Wilshere.
The former Barcelona academy product isn’t suited to hold the line, as Pellegrini once stated. Wilshere needs a shield to provide him with clean balls. The role of Wilshere is to receive the ball and thrive in the final third. If he’s able to dictate the play in a more advanced role, it remains to be seen.
But Wilshere certainly couldn’t do it if he’s not armed with decent balls coming from the back. Barcelona’s Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta dictated the play and dominated the midfield because – other than being at another level than Wilshere and playing in a superior side – they also had their backs covered by Sergio Busquets. “We need to defend better and score more goals,” Pellegrini said after the game against Wolves. West Ham need to defend better, so they can provide Wilshere with more of the ball. That way, it could lead to more scoring chances for the London side.
The choice of a bonafide holding midfielder is also pivotal when it comes to playing attacking teams such as Wolverhampton. In fact, against Wolves, the Hammers found it difficult containing Wolverhampton’s no.10 Helder Costa.
Although no.10s usually roam all over the final third, Costa charged to face them in the defensive half of the opposite team. In Wilshere and Noble, West Ham don’t have a player that is able to fill this void. Sanchez is more suited to do it, but he’s not mobile enough. So, the Colombian midfielder could face trouble facing mobile no.10s. Obiang could represent a slight improvement. By the way, West Ham will not face roaming attacking midfielders every time. But, they will constantly come up against decent passers, so they need a shield in front of the backline in order to help the centre-backs, not forgetting to support Wilshere.
A 4-2-3-1 solution?
Another option some pundits suggested is switching to a 4-2-3-1 system. This solution sounds interesting as it will free Wilshere form some defensive duties, allowing him to roam all around the final third of the field. By the way, this option will require Pellegrini finding two central midfielders. That’s exactly the same solution that isn’t working so far because it failed to provide more protection to West Ham’s backline. True to be told, lining up Wilshere as an attacking midfielder could positively affect Marko Arnautovic’s up front. The Austrian likes to roam but his teammates looked unable to exploit the gaps Arnautovic’s movements usually create.
Adding an attacking midfielder as Wilshere behind him could provide some needed support up front. That’s a role that could also help Felipe Anderson live up to his hype.