West Ham United and David Moyes are on cloud nine after a flying start to the new campaign. Four weeks in, The Irons are undefeated in the Premier League after three wins and one draw, including two surprise victories over Chelsea and Brighton & Hove Albion.
With an average possession of 23% in these two matches, the men in Claret and Blue scored six times and conceded just twice.
Was this by design or pure luck?
To answer that, let us perform a tactical deep dive.
Before examining what West Ham did after winning the ball, let us focus on their formation without possession.
David Moyes deployed a 4-5-1 defensive shape against Brighton and Chelsea that fluidly shifted between a mid and low-block during different game states.
(West Ham’s defensive 4-5-1 mid-block against Brighton)
(West Ham’s defensive 4-5-1 low-block against Chelsea)
This compact shape limited the opposition’s ability to progress the ball through central spaces, as there was very little room to operate between West Ham’s midfield and defensive lines.
Therefore, it forced the opposition towards the flanks to penetrate their defensive block.
The opposition would not try lofted crosses into the penalty box due to the height advantage of Moyes’s center-backs.
The options remaining are low crosses, which usually would not find an attacker as West Ham floods their penalty box with bodies to defend, or reliance on individual brilliance.
And so, the only two goals conceded by West Ham in those matches were a solo piece of skill by Chelsea’s Carney Chukwuemeka when he danced past Thomas Soucek to curl a shot to the bottom right corner…
… and a long-range effort by Brighton’s Pascal Groß.
When West Ham retrieve possession, they aim to counter-attack the opposition after luring them into the defensive half of the pitch.
Moyes ensures that a counter-offensive outlet is stationed close to the touchline on the side where the ball is in play.
For example, against Chelsea, West Ham is defending in a 4-5-1.
Although the home team has not won possession, notice Michail Antonio (yellow) positioning himself on the left wing to exploit the space behind (black) the left center-back, Axel Disasi, if there is a turnover.
When scanning through the match footage, this tactical detail is clearly visible. Even if Michail Antonio is not on the pitch, a forward from the front line always occupies that position.
Once possession is secured and the ball is moved to the attacking outlet, at least two runners surge into the offensive final third for support.
These principles were in full flow in West Ham’s second goal against Brighton on August 26th.
As The Seagulls build up through the center, West Ham maintains a compact mid-block to cover central spaces, forcing the opposition to shift the ball to the wings and cross it into the penalty box.
After an interception by Kurt Zouma, possession turns over to Michail Antonio, who carries the ball (black arrow) and executes a forward pass (white arrow) to Said Benrahma on the left wing.
The Algerian forward holds onto possession, waiting for support, which arrives from James Ward-Prowse and Jarod Bowen, who attacks the empty space marked in black.
Benrahma completes an inch-perfect pass to Bowen, who slots the ball to the bottom left corner and makes it 0-2.
Although West Ham has had a near-perfect start, there must be some caution as the momentum is unsustainable in the long run.
Though it is a small sample size, when analyzing the data, West Ham is one of the few teams in the Premier League over-performing on both ends of the pitch.
The ‘Goals – Expected Goals (xG)‘ figure represents the number of goals scored above expectations. Therefore, any positive number suggests that the team scored more goals than statistically anticipated.
Likewise, the ‘Post-Shot Expected Goals Against (PSxGA) – Goals Against’ figure illustrates the number of goals conceded against the expectations of the xG algorithm.
A positive figure denotes over-performance, as it shows that the team conceded fewer goals than expected due to the goalkeeper’s proficiency.
This level of over-performance can be fairly maintained in a season, as demonstrated by Fulham last year. However, over-reliance might be detrimental to the team in the long run.
Nonetheless, West Ham was deserved victor against Chelsea and Brighton and must continue to rely on their successful counter-attacking scheme against possession-reliant teams.
During the course of the campaign, the men in Claret and Blue armor will defeat stronger teams against the odds using this counter-attacking set-up.
The Big Six, beware.