Guest Post by Dawud Marsh
This is my first post, I am not used to writing much about anything and certainly don’t feel confident to talk with any authority on football. I love my football, I love West Ham but I am just some regular reader who wanted to post an article in the hope it may encourage more of us to do the same. Many of us have opinions and often the short (or longer comments and posts) don’t do those opinions justice. My grammar is wonky, my spelling is awful and my argument a little confused, but I would want to know what others think. That’s why I posted.
A lot has been said about our recent performance the London Stadium and I don’t want to repeat much of that analysis, but instead I would like to highlight what for me, has been a key feature of our play at home for the last few seasons.
Last season was exhilarating, for a number of different reasons, but even despite some outstanding results and performances, not least the stunning victory against Man U in our final game at the Boleyn, I still found similarities with other seasons in terms of our on field play, a lot of which centre on the decision making of players and what I believe to be a break down in the team’s ability to follow through with match day tactics from the manager.
It seems that irrespective of who our manager is, there are some key features to our play that for me, have become the West Ham Way of playing football, particularly at home. Bilic, Sam and previous managers seem to have replicated these features despite any changes in personnel on and off the pitch during their tenures.
For sure, the scoreline at home to Chelsea flattered us, Chelsea rarely moved out of second gear and with a couple more key errors they could have punished us further. Our last gasp goal reflected Chelsea’s lack of concentration in a match where they were rarely troubled. Previously, draws against Watford, WBA have seen us suffer from not taking advantage of, nor creating, chances in front of goal. Then results against Man City – both at the London Stadium – showed us the gulf between the two teams and we were lucky not to have conceded more goals!
But, the Bournemouth match and that against Chelsea are purposeful reminders of the glaring issues I want to highlight here. Issues that baffle if not for the fact we can all seem them so clearly, but why it has become such a key feature to our play over the last few seasons and beyond.
On Monday and Saturday Bilic set the team up to play in a certain way, with Carroll up front we need Cresswell out on the wing, ready to receive the ball and drive forward to whip a ball into the box. With Carroll making a run few defenders will be able to stop him if his times the run right and heads a ball with pace into the net. The problem of course was that Cresswell played his part against Chelsea, kicking up the chalk on the wing, but as on Saturday with Lanzini out wide there is no wide pass. Instead he cuts inside and goes for short and possession is lost. Here we find Lanzini with the option for a wide pass – Cresswell, Antonio and Koyuate with the space to make a run and create play forward, keeps his head down and tries to take on one, two maybe more players and find another short pass inside. Antonio can be guilty of this too.
You’re not going to dribble through many defences and with players committed forward and some of those wide, once the ball is lost, the pace of players like Hazard will punish you. We don’t have the pace in the side to get back and make a telling interception or tackle to break up a counter attack. And how easy are we to be peeled open on the counter attack?
Players out wide, wasted, creative players tracking inside and looking for the short pass also is a waste with Carroll in the team. This happens time and again, week in week out. I was wondering if Cresswell has upset his team mates – why didn’t they look up, see him wide and either pass the ball out wide or even switch the play? With Koyate able to run wide or Feghouli able to make runs forward why not use the wide pass more? Lanzini plays better centrally but opts for the inside and tries to take on players rather than whip it out wide and make a run into the box.
And this brings me to my other feature of our game – players not looking up, keeping their head down or seeing only who is directly in front of them. Noble’s pass that lead to Hazard’s goal has been thoroughly analysed but I would argue this is part of our game. Surely, Bilic didn’t set up the team with wide options and then tell his team to pass short and inside? Short passes that lose possession such as Ayews pass that lead to King’s hat trick another telling example. The players themselves are making in game decisions that are costly, either by losing possession with the opposition counter attacking or wasting the chance to create a goal scoring opportunity.
The defenders and midfielders are not using their wide players and throughout the team there is a style of play where a short pass – often sideways or back, placing the receiving player under pressure, is used instead of a wide or forward pass. Time on the ball invites pressure and the short pass becomes the norm, rather than a quick touch a pass out wide.
But to create forward play you need players to use the space in front of them, or create space with a forward run. Here is the next issue that seems to be a key feature of our play. How many times do we see space in front of players wasted because they do not make the run, giving their team mate an option to pass forward? One of the things about Match of the Day that I like is how pundits analyse play and with a simple graphic, highlight what a player should have done. Arsenals woeful performance against Liverpool was highlighted in this way and we could easily do this with our performances. I am sure that Bilic does not tell his players to stand and wait for a pass, surely they are told to use the space in front of them? Looking over the video of the previous match will highlight this and I wonder why our players are so static. Even once the ball is crossed in for Carroll, who is anticipating he will win it and make space for a knock down or pass? It often seems as if our players are watching the game unfold rather than making it happen.
A classic example of this are throw ins, in an advanced position they can be an advantage, but if you have no one to throw the ball to because players are either too far away or not making a run into space then we get a defensive throw back towards our half. I saw this several times against Chelsea – with six black shirts to our two or three shirts in an advanced position in Chelsea’s half. Against Bournemouth there were often more red/ black shirts and we often appear to be a man light. Needless to say, the possession is lost and Bournemouth were able to make a counter attacking play.
My final point follows on from this where players are happy to be man marked when in possession but do not mark opposition players when they have the ball. We see this particularly in midfield but also when teams send a player out wide we remain narrow, then chase and instead of making a tackle, back track allowing the opposition to advance into the area or wide of the box and make a telling pass.
Defensively against Bournemouth we allowed their players time on the ball, tracking away from the play allowing a cross or telling pass into the box and an unmarked player able to make a shot on goal or a short pass to a free player – inside the box? Come on! Where were the defence? Why is no one going to the player, putting him under pressure along the by-line, forcing a quick pass or even making a tackle and breaking up the play? This happened repeatedly on Saturday and weekly at home.
Little use of wide players, no forward running into space, static players who wait for the ball, no movement for throw ins and no marking or pressing of players when out of possession. I have seen this week in and week out, regardless of the manager and I do not know about anyone else, but surely these are basics and I can’t understand why our professional players are unable to address these? I place responsibility on the players but I find it hard to believe that Bilic, or any manager, would set up a team with wide players and tell his midfield not to pass to them. Would a manager say, ‘Don’t make a run into space, wait for the ball to come to you.’
The issue is possibly that players make the wrong decisions in play, with the pressure and pace of the game, and they are unable to follow the tactics to the letter. Or the manager tells the team to play that way. But we need to change this way of playing or as we saw against Chelsea, Bournemouth and other teams this season, we will get punished time and again.
But finally, and I am sure this will be debated endlessly this season – the need for the manager to make changes, either who starts and plays where, but tactics in game. Once Lanzini was central, we had more width. With Ayew on we had more forward running and options for the midfield. As for the right back position – I’ll leave that for other threads.
I guess I am saying the issue is the real time, in play decisions that players make are costing us, but finally I do acknowledge the role that Bilic plays in how the team is set up and the tactics used. I do wonder whether these tactics are not getting through to players because surely they cannot be told to play this way, can they? But they are, week in week out, season after season.