Each week, totalfootballanalysis.com tactically previews the Fixture in Focus and this week we look at how West Ham’s defensive issues might be something that Wolves can exploit, written by Lee Scott, Lead Analyst for TFA.
The 2018-19 English Premier League season is only three matches old but already the hopes and expectations of West Ham United fans are falling rapidly. There was a genuine sense of hope around the club going into the season after the owners invested significant transfer funds into the club, with the likes of Felipe Anderson and Issa Diop arriving for inflated transfer fees and with strong reputations from their previous clubs.
This was further enhanced by the reputation of their new coach Manuel Pellegrini, who is returning to the English game after a successful spell with Manchester City.
Three matches are insignificant when viewed through the lens of an entire season but when they are all that you have to go by, they become all-encompassing, especially for fans. With three matches gone West Ham find themselves at the bottom of the league table with zero points, having lost difficult away matches to Liverpool and Arsenal and a home match against Bournemouth, a game they would have targeted for three points before the start of the season.
Now they go into a home match against newly promoted Wolves with their opponents coming off the back of a home match against Manchester City when they matched the champions stride for stride during a 1-1 draw.
This may well be one of the worst times to face Wolves as they look to find their stride and firmly establish themselves as a side worthy of the top league in England.
To this point in the season, West Ham have struggled defensively with a number of different personnel choices not helping them to find stability.
Above are two slightly different lineups Pellegrini has opted to use so far this season. Both structures are 4-2-3-1 with two shielding midfielders in a double pivot ahead of the defensive line. It is clear from the changes in the central defensive partnership and the shielding midfield partnership that Pellegrini is aware that there are defensive issues within the side, and that he is still searching for solutions.
Declan Rice, in particular, is a player who is obviously rated at the club but having been played predominantly as a ball playing central defender to this point, he has since been moved into a defensive midfield position with the Argentine coach believing that he has the necessary skillset to thrive in this role.
With the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-4-2 that Pellegrino has experimented with so far this season, there is a definite split in structure with an attacking unit and a defending unit becoming very evident.
With Pellegrini known to favour a somewhat defensive approach, it is no surprise that the split in the structure is weighted towards the defensive unit, with West Ham operating with six predominantly defensive players and four who operate more in the attack. In the attacking transition, the fullback on the ball side of the field will advance higher up the field to support the attack, and this will change the split to 5/5 but there is still defensive balance.
The main concern for West Ham and Pellegrini going into this match against Wolves, however, will come in the midfield battle, a battle that should prove pivotal in deciding the outcome of the match.
It is well known that in football, if you want to win a match and dominate the opposition, then you have to control the centre of the field. It is this belief that led to the adoption of three and even four (diamond) midfield setups with teams positioning their midfield players in central areas in order to overload the opposition and give them an advantage.
Wolves set up slightly differently in a structure that switches between 5-2-3 out of possession to 3-4-3 in possession, but with either structure, the key central occupation for Wolves will only be two players. We should perhaps clarify first of all, however, that despite only having two players in the centre of the midfield, these players are Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves, both established Portugal internationals.
Despite only having two players in central areas we still saw Wolves more than hold their own last season against Manchester City where they should have had a three versus two disadvantage in the centre.
The key to Wolves having control in these central areas lay in the relatively deep positioning of Moutinho and Neves. Both midfielders have a fantastic range of passing and possess the innate ability to identify passing options and play the correct ball within seconds of receiving possession.
With three forwards then positioned across the width of the field in the final third, the results of these combinations can be extremely hard to defend. This will prove particularly difficult for West Ham, with the deep double pivot in defensive midfield that we have already seen offering space and time for Moutinho and Neves to play in ahead of them.
If Pellegrini has scouted the Wolves setup properly then a switch to a 4-3-3 structure will offer a solution and a way to negate the central threat of Wolves.
Switching to a 4-3-3 would structurally mean that West Ham were better suited to put immediate pressure on Wolves’ midfield in the moments of transition when Neves and Moutinho can be at their most dangerous in terms of starting attacking movements. It would also mean that they retained at least one controlling midfielder in a deeper position, to offer a sense of protection to the defensive line.
Wolves are exceptionally difficult to contain when they are allowed to transition quickly from defence to attack, with all three of the attacking players retaining high positions and having the quality and speed to exploit spaces in the opposition defensive structure. Wolves coach Nuno Espirito Santo is likely to play again with Raul Jimenez leading the line, with Diego Jota on the left and Helder Costa on the right.
This is one of the most common attacking patterns that we will see from Wolves with the same movements occurring on either side of the field, whether the instigator of the attacking movement is Neves on the left side of Moutinho on the right. The first passing options for the midfielder are Jota on the left or Costa on the right with the far side wide player moving inside to support the ball in central areas.
When this movement occurs the far side wing back will advance into a high position to offer the option of switching the play quickly into an area where the wing back will have a one versus one opportunity against the opposition full-back.
These movements and different options across the width of the pitch mean that the opposition defensive unit has to concentrate fully in order to counter the threat.
Three competitive league matches should be enough of a sample size for a coach of Pellegrini’s experience to identify issues and move to remedy them.
West Ham fans will certainly be hoping that this is the case with a fourth defeat of the season threatening to firmly anchor their side at the foot of the table.