Seven matches into the new season, West Ham United sit third in the league only three points off top spot. It’s been a very strange start to the season for the Hammers. They’ve had wins at Anfield, at the Emirates, and at the Etihad, but have lost at home to Bournemouth and drew at home to Norwich. They’ve won nine points from nine away from home, but taken only four of 12 at home. Slaven Bilic’s men have been throwing up surprise results left, right and centre so far this season.
If you asked pundits where West Ham fans would be after seven games, not too many of them would have said third. If you asked pundits, or even the most optimistic West Ham fans, before the start of the season how many points they’d get away to the Etihad, the Emirates, and Anfield, very few if any of them would have said they’d get nine out of nine. The big questions for West Ham is how are they doing this and is it sustainable?
The simple answer to the first question would be that the Hammers are a good counter attacking side. They’ve had less then 40% possession in all four of their wins this season, and the only time they’ve out-possessed their opposition, they lost 2-1 to Leicester.
But it’s not quite that simple. They are a side that is built for counter attacking, but when on the road they’ve been able to put themselves in good counter attacking positions. In their four wins they’ve scored first in every match and scored inside the first 10 minutes in three of them. In their other three matches, they’ve conceded the first goal and failed to score inside the opening half an hour in all of them. For a team that wants to play like West Ham, the first goal is vital. It allows the Hammers to sit in a low block, absorb pressure, then break with their quick talented players like Dimitri Payet and Diafra Sakho.
The second question is whether this is sustainable for West Ham. In short, probably not. The Hammers have made a habit of scoring with their first shot on target, doing so in each of their first six games. They’ve also scored with their first shot of the game in three of their first seven matches. It doesn’t matter how good a team is, a run like that is simply not sustainable.
They’ve also routinely outperformed their expected goals. Expected goals is a formula worked up by Michael Caley to show the quality of chances a team has in a way pure shot data cannot do. If you want to read more of expected goals click here, but West Ham’s expected goals for have been 7.3, while their expected goals against has been 9.1. The metric doesn’t account for own goals or penalties, so the actual goals for without penalties or own goals is 14, while the actual goals against is eight. There are some exceptions, but teams usually end up finishing with a goal tally close to their expected goals and concede a number close to their expected goals against.
As great as this run has been for West Ham, it’s probably not sustainable. That doesn’t mean they’ll fall into a relegation scrap, they’re a good team that will be mid table and maybe even challenge for a Europa League spot. It is unlikely however that they’ll be this close to the top come seasons end.