The Season Just Gone
2014-15 was a very strange season for West Ham fans. For half of the campaign, the Hammers looked a much better side than they had for years, producing seductive, sophisticated and successful displays using a fluid midfield diamond and maintaining a solid position in the Premier League table. Then-manager Sam Allardyce seemed to be destroying the stereotype of him as a tactical dinosaur that could only play one way and guys like Alex Song, Stewart Downing and Diafra Sakho played like world-beaters.
In the second half of the season, it all went wrong. They had a few bad results, then Allardyce’s motivation dwindled and consequently every player’s form completely collapsed. West Ham won only three of their last twenty games and it was obvious that everyone at the club was waiting for the season to end so that they could get out or go on holiday. Allardyce’s departure was swiftly and inevitably confirmed shortly after the campaign’s end and not a single West Ham fan was sad to see him go.
The Season Ahead
New boss Slaven Bilić has hit just about every high note so far, turning West Ham into a side even more eye-catching than they were this time last year. They have made history by beating Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City away from home and currently sit fourth in the table after yet another comfortable away win against Crystal Palace. New signings Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini have been absolutely sensational, while Victor Moses has added Premier League experience and guile in the final third.
No-one expects West Ham to sustain this run of form, of course. Oddly, they’ve only won one game at the Boleyn Ground this season and the performances in home defeats against Leicester and Bournemouth were absolutely shambolic. They have had a hell of a lot of luck in their famous away victories and they will regress to the mean soon enough, returning to mid-table mediocrity. As long as this run continues, however, there’s no reason for West Ham fans not to keep enjoying it.
Bilić has varied his approach according to the opponent this season, favouring deeply reactive and defensive tactics against bigger opponents and more expansive, ambitious setups in games that West Ham are expected to win. He’s never compromised on playing a back four with a holding midfielder in front of it, but the configuration ahead of those players has routinely changed.
It’s reasonable to expect West Ham to approach the Chelsea game in the same way they did their victories against Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City, in which they played a deep 4-3-2-1 and almost completely surrendered possession to play on the break. The formation makes sense: the midfield three sat in front of the defence and plugged the passing lanes between the defenders, frustrating their more illustrious opponents and limiting their ability to create clear chances. When the ball turns over and they can attack, they’ve done so primarily with the pace and flair of Payet and Lanzini, with Sakho playing well as an out-ball target-man.
Given Chelsea’s patient passing approach and vulnerability to pace on the break, combined with West Ham’s success using these tactics so far this season, it would be a big surprise if they played any other way.
The biggest strength they have displayed so far this season is tactical discipline: against better teams they have played without the ball for long periods and kept their shape in their own half brilliantly. What’s more, they’ve done so without committing fouls. Only Arsenal have committed fewer fouls this season and obviously the Gunners have a lot more possession and so a lot less chance to do so.
West Ham have been hard-working as well as organised, making an impressive 20.1 tackles per game and 17 interceptions per game. Without their commitment to the cause and high levels of concentration, they’d never have achieved the results they have done this season.
The chief reason they can play so defensively in big games is that they have loads and loads of pace and individual flair on the break. The ever eye-catching Payet and Lanzini have a combined 4.5 dribbles per game, 5.2 chances created and 11 goals and assists so far this season.
Their reactive style has led to them allowing a lot of shots on their goal: in the away victories over Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, for example, the opponents took a combined 62 shots to West Ham’s 26. In case we’ve forgotten, the combined score from those games was 7-1 to West Ham. PDO works as a measure of luck based on shot conversion rates for and against, and at the moment no team has been luckier than West Ham (source). They simply can’t keep getting outshot so comprehensively and keep winning.
Equally important is the fact that when individual errors are made by players in such a reactive setup, it always leads to lots of sendings off. West Ham have been no exception: they have received more red cards so far this season than any other Premier League side, all following moments of madness from players who were trying to recover after making a mistake.
Also, Eden Hazard vs Carl Jenkinson.
West Ham’s starting line-up is hard to predict given Bilić’s tinkering but, as noted above, the most logical approach for the Hammers is the one that’s brought them such success against bigger teams. It’s possible that Angelo Ogbonna will be preferred to James Collins in the absence of Winston Reid, but Collins’ Premier League experience may count in his favour.
As for Chelsea, f**k knows.
It’s difficult to believe that Chelsea taking three points here would count as a surprise, but this writer fully expects Chelsea to win by at least two goals.