After Europa League qualification and now extending David Moyes, it’s time for West Ham to look forward to the future. What worked last year, and where do they need to improve to contend consistently?
What Drove Last Year’s Success
After fighting relegation the year prior, West Ham surprised everyone last season by qualifying for Europe. There is clearly plenty of talent in the squad, but much of it was there in 2019-20 as well - the difference was that the team clearly bought into David Moyes’ system that fit their strengths.
Going into the season, there were a few things clear about West Ham’s squad:
There was depth up front with a lot of the same strengths. The attackers were athletic and able to make the smart, quick decisions on the counter. On the other hand, they were lacking in some creativity to create space against a deeper defense. While Lingard added a little bit to the creativity, his strengths were still emphasized on the counter.
Defensively was a bit of the opposite, including Lukasz Fabiański. The defenders were positionally sound and able to stifle creativity, but were lacking in athleticism.
At all three levels, there was depth in players that were good in the air and able to find the space to get a touch on crosses and set pieces.
Aaron Cresswell is a strong crosser of the ball, and they made a shrewd move at the other fullback spot to bring in Vladimír Coufal to provide similar service on the right side.
With all of that in mind, Moyes put together a style of play that emphasized those strengths. West Ham sat back defensively, didn’t put their backline at risk by pressing, and waited for their opponents to make mistakes. Once they did have the ball, they countered quickly and were happy to play for set pieces if they weren’t able to hit on the counter.
The offensive stats clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of this strategy:
Most goals scored from set pieces in the Premier League
Second-most goals scored on the counter attack
Most goals scored inside of the six-yard box
Second-most aerial battles in the league
Most accurate crosses in the league
Cresswell, most assists by a defender
Additional stats pointed to the dependence on structure versus creativity - the fifth-fewest dribbles, third-fewest fouls drawn, and least unsuccessful touches in the league. If a team was able to stop West Ham’s counter, it was often difficult to create space and opportunities unless they were able to create a set piece.
Defensively, the stats were a great example of context being important when looking at statistics. As an example, West Ham had only the fifth-fewest tackles in the league; it would be easy to look at that and their possession numbers, and assume that this was a team that struggled to get possession back. Instead, this is an example of the strategy working - they simply didn’t attempt many tackles, and capitalized once the opposition made a mistake. Proof of that - the Hammers’ defensive structure and strategy led to the most interceptions in the league.
Finally, West Ham was very effective at taking points once they were ahead. That doesn’t quite fit the narrative of the team after a run of matches letting their opponents back in after going up 3-0, but West Ham had the sixth-best rate of taking points once they took the lead last season (taking 86% of the possible points). Conversely, they also took the fourth-most points after falling behind. While West Ham played a structured game, this demonstrates the effectiveness of that structure in varying situations.
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On top of the normal decisions that any club has to make during an offseason, West Ham is also faced this year with preparing for the Europa League. The resulting fixture congestion is going to require more depth in the squad, though it also attracts players who are looking for an opportunity to play in Europe. Importantly, especially after the COVID impacted 2020-21 season, it also guarantees at least some additional revenue.
Before considering how to build that depth, the Hammers need to figure out if they’ll go into the season with Declan Rice and Jesse Lingard. Lingard revitalized his career on loan with West Ham in the second half of last season, but that’s now driven up the price of a potential transfer from Manchester United. Meanwhile, Rice has long been coveted by other clubs around the Premier League and likely won’t be a West Ham player for his whole career.
To me, the decisions West Ham will have to make with both might just come down to what the transfer market looks like in the current economic environment. While I don’t think it makes sense to bring back Lingard by using almost the entire transfer budget available, a depleted market could make it a more reasonable decision to bring him back while his price is lower than it could be. The opposite is true for Rice - it will make sense to let him move on at some point, and the pressure will then be on the Hammers to make sure they get the resulting use of that money correct. However, this year may not be the right time to do that - in my opinion it will make more sense to wait until next year and hope for a more normalized transfer market.
Elsewhere, the Hammers need to build depth and get younger - they were the third-oldest team in the Premier League last season. While they have plenty of depth in the attacking midfield, particularly on the wings, there are other areas that need to be improved.
Michail Antonio was one of the most important players to West Ham’s resurgence, but has been injury prone and I wouldn’t want to expect him to handle both Premier League and Europa League duties. While he hasn’t been linked with West Ham, Daryl Dike would be a great fit for them. He has shown the ability to get himself into good positions and score in a variety of ways, and has already demonstrated his ability in the Championship.
Elsewhere, West Ham has been linked with Tammy Abraham. Abraham would clearly be a good signing, but the story becomes similar to Lingard - is his incremental value to West Ham worth his price in the transfer market? My guess would be no, but that will be hard to predict until more transfers start flowing this year and there is a gauge of what that price would be.
Internally, it’s also time for West Ham to make a decision on Xande Silva. He’s had a setback previously after emergency surgery, but the Hammers need to decide if they think he will be a Premier League forward. If he will, then this is the year to keep him in the squad and prove it. If not, it’s probably time to let him go permanently.
West Ham has been linked to Alex Kral from Spartak Moscow, and has some link to him through their other recent Czech signings. Kral is an excellent player, but the value of him to West Ham is reliant on Declan Rice - if the Hammers keep Rice, Kral becomes a bit repetitive within their squad.
If Rice does stay, I’d instead like to see them go after a more attacking minded, creative midfielder as an option to change things up when their style isn’t working as well. West Ham struggled last year against teams that were able to force them into possession and sat deep defensively. While their style clearly worked overall, they would benefit from someone who can break down those deep blocks when needed. Maybe Manuel Lanzini can fit that role, and he looked good at times last season, but it’s hard to count on him getting back to his pre-surgery form at this point.
Aaron Cresswell had a great year last season, but West Ham needs to have a better second choice behind him. It’s time to move on from Arthur Masuaku - he’s a player that certainly has value, especially going forward, but isn’t strong enough defensively for the way West Ham wants to play. Meanwhile, most of their other options are more comfortable playing on the right-side.
Given Cresswell’s injury issues and that he may be asked to slide into the left-side of a back three, it’s important to find another option for depth and for the future. One strong option would be Borna Sosa from Stuttgart. He has a long-term contract with Stuttgart, but if they were able to make a deal for him he could easily fit in as a complement to Cressell for now, take the wing back position when they use a back three, and then be ready to become the starter as soon as needed.
West Ham clearly doesn’t need a new first choice goalkeeper, but do need to decide if they’d be comfortable with their internal options if Fabianski continued to have occasional injury issues. That’s even more important given that the backup will likely play more this year with the increased fixtures. There have been rumors of Sean Johnstone from West Brom - I would have some doubts around his ability to be the long-term solution after Fabianski stops playing. However, for now he could be another needed piece as West Ham looks to make a Europa League run and continue their Premier League success.