When you tune into the late Sunday kick off in the Premier League, you expect an intriguing game or a snooze-fest. Usually the big game, the title decider or big derby will be played around this time for TV reasons as the powers that be flex their muscles. Normally, most of us have just finished a monster Sunday dinner and want nothing more than to plop, starfish-like, on the sofa and snore in front of the game.
But preferably it’s the dinner that causes the snoring, not the football.
Sunday’s game between Swansea and West Ham could hardly be described as one of the Premier League’s biggest matches. It was also snore-inducing at times, but there was, at least, some sort of intrigue.
And that intrigue came in the form of your standard attack against defence classic. West Ham soaked up the pressure and tried to hit the Swans on the break, Swansea passed it around and tried, to no avail, to work an opening.
Swansea managed 73% possession, they hit the ball hopefully towards the goal 21 times and yet they managed a paltry two shots on target. It was a spectacular failure of penetration – the kind witnessed by Manchester United supporters week after week. But in the end, Swansea did at least manage to bag themselves a point.
But one man’s spectacular failure is another man’s treasure, or so the saying sort of goes. West Ham will point to a magnificent defensive display, and it’s hard to argue with that.
In fact, it was reminiscent of the Hammers’ trip to the Etihad Stadium in September.
That day Manchester City managed 27 shots, but only eight were on target. It was a case of West Ham’s defence throwing bodies in the way of shots, standing firm in the face of some heavy pressure and patient probing. And in the end they limited City to only a handful of chances. But against a team without the likes of Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, a great defensive display like that turns into an impenetrable one.
The stats from the weekend are impressive. 26 blocks and 24 interceptions is a lot of hard graft over the course of 90 minutes. In a way, it points to a string of last-ditch interventions into promising attacks, but in reality it shows West Ham’s ability to sit deep and stay compact. It’s a feat of discipline and calculation, not of last ditch heroism.
West Ham’s defensive display vs. Swansea: 44 clearances 26 blocks 24 interceptions 11 tackles won Brick wall. pic.twitter.com/jQhspNVlR8
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 20, 2015
While the stats tell most of the story, they don’t tell all of it, however. While West Ham are less effective in front of the opposition goal than they are in front of their own – Slaven Bilic’s side have drawn three consecutive games 0-0, the first time in history that West Ham have done that – they’ve had to put up with some serious injury problems.
The rise to the top, as with so many teams in the league this season, has been based more on defensive solidity than attacking prowess. Even Leicester City, who conceded by some distance the most goals in the top six, are at their most dangerous on the counter attack.
The game is changing to favour counter-attacking teams. But the best counter-attacking teams do well because of two things – keeping the on-form attackers fit, and staying solid at the back. Leicester are leading the way because of their attackers, and not their defenders. If only West Ham could get the likes of Dimitri Payet, especially, and Victor Moses fit again, they could rise up the table even further – and they’re already only four points off the top four.
Andy Carroll, Winston Reid, Manuel Lanzini and Diafra Sakho are all out, too.
With the exception of Reid, the rest are serious attacking options, and losing any of them could impact the Hammers’ potency in front of goal. But luckily for them, the defence is doing its job.
It’s a case of holding on tight for West Ham this Christmas. Three 0-0s in a row might point to a snoozy Christmas in front of the TV for the fans, but when reinforcements return, West Ham have a great platform to build on.