When West Ham United finished seventh in the English Premier League last season, improving by five positions, the effusive season reviews (example) they received were completely justified. Not only had they beaten Liverpool (Home & Away), Manchester City and Arsenal (Away), Chelsea and Manchester United (Home), but also qualified for Europa League because of their league position, and they were moving to a new, bigger stadium. Although that move could have jinxed the team’s fortunes, if you were a West Ham fan, your jubilation in the summer of 2016 was well-deserved.
As would be your concern at the start West Ham have had this season. This is their worst start in the Premier League, picking up just 4 points in 7 games and dropping out of Europa League against the same relatively unknown Romanian team for the second year running. They have been beaten by 2 goals or more in four games, and not just by Manchester City, but also by Watford, West Bromwich Albion, and Southampton. So if you are a Hammer and worried, it is completely understandable.
So during the current international break, I decided to take a look at West Ham’s stats in a little detail and find out what has changed from last season. First few points that struck me were – the changes in some key positions, Masuaku, instead of Cresswell, no Alexandre Song. But as we will see below, Masuaku is not doing as badly as his horror show against West Brom suggests and is actually a good replacement for Cresswell on current form. Also, Song did not really have an extra ordinary 2015-16 for his absence to matter much. Then who or what is going wrong?
My second instinct was to look at West Ham’s talisman from last season – Dimitri Payet. I thought after delivering 21 goals (9 scored, 12 assisted) for the team last season, and after a brilliant showing in the summer’s Euro championship in France, Payet is a bit fatigued this season. But I was wrong. He has picked up from where he had ended the last season. In fact, his WhoScored rating is 7.86 this season, up from 7.74 last season. This will of course come down a bit as the campaign progresses but other than goals scored, his per game numbers are also almost equal to or better than last year:
He is shooting more, trying to take on defenders more frequently and passing to team mates slightly more. While he has scored only one goal this season, anyone who saw that one goal can believe that he is going to score several more this season. So if Payet is just about playing as he was last season, then where else is the problem?
While West Ham’s forwards (Carroll, Sakho, and Valencia) delivered 23 goals (scored 18, assisted 5) last season, the designated forwards this season (Zaza, Calleri, and Fletcher) have provided zero goals. Sakho, Ayew and Carroll cannot be included this season due to their early injuries.
Forward’s Per Game Stats
West Ham’s forwards are shooting less often, winning aerial duels less often, and passing less often. They are also reluctant to slip past defenders this season. These numbers reflect the fact that three of the four forwards this season are new to the team, each other, and the league.
The only bright light in this department is Michail Antonio, who even more than Payet, is improving upon his numbers from last season. He is shooting more (5 goals) and passing more (both more accurately), winning more aerial duels, taking on defenders more frequently and controlling the ball a bit better.
In the advanced midfield, Manuel Lanzini has had only one game, while he appeared 26 times last season playing a part in 8 goals (scoring 6, assisting 2). Other advanced midfielders are not constant, the same as Slaven Bilic’s formations.
Two constants from last year’s midfield – Cheikhou Kouyaté and Mark Noble, delivered 18 goals last season (12 scored, 6 assisted) and overall were the engines that drove West Ham forward.
Midfielders’ Per Game Stats
However, this season, they are passing less frequently, providing key passes less frequently, tackling less frequently, and shooting also less frequently. This last bit explains that they are yet to score a goal between them. The drop in tackles is, I believe, significant. Almost as a team (as we will see for defence as well), West Ham are tackling less frequently and intercepting opposition passes more frequently. Not only the advanced players like Payet and Antonio, but midfielders and central defenders, all are tackling less this season. This seems to reflect a strategy of pressing less and allowing the opposite team members to pass the ball and then break up play. If this is the case, I think it is backfiring on them.
In defence, on the left wing, there has been a straight swap between Cresswell and Masuaku. When I saw Masuaku’s horror show, against West Brom, I thought they had made a mistake. So I was surprised to find that in the first seven games, Masuaku is (by WhoScored rating), West Ham’s second best player. He tackles and intercepts more frequently than Cresswell. He takes on opposition players more frequently when going forward. So overall, Masuaku’s not the reason for the team’s malaise.
Defenders’ Per Game Stats
The three central defenders – Reid, Ogbonna, and Collins – have performed quite similar to their last season performances thus far. However, there are some minor variations that indicate different tactics from last season. They are tackling less and intercepting more – perhaps indicating the reduced pressing tactic mentioned above. They are also winning fewer offsides, which can happen if defenders sit back and press less. They are clearing less but are dribbled past more often, possibly leading to more goal probability of shots from opposition.
In conclusion, I think that the absences of several players, especially the forwards (Carroll and Sakho) is hurting West Ham. But also crucial is fewer tackles, less shots and the deeper play that is getting them in trouble. While this could be due to the influx of a large number of new players, and them taking time to settle down in West Ham’s last year rhythm, but it could also be due to a tactical shift to a slightly slower, less pressing, more passing (high successful pass rate across the team), kind of a game. If it is former, it is a matter of time before Hammers can see the same West Ham from last season. But if it is latter, Bilic will have to change his tactics, and that could be surprisingly hard for managers to do.
(All stats sourced from www.whoscored.com)