You’ve heard of “you can’t square a circle” but today we’re talking about triangles, squares, and what happens when a dinosaur tries to advance 30,000 years at once – can you tell I’ve been watching new Netflix series Bodies? It’s kinda good.
Under David Moyes, West Ham are generally happy to cede possession, sit back, defend in their shape and look to threaten from counter-attacks and set-pieces. But within the recesses of the prehistoric (and also very successful in the modern era but we’ll ignore that) mind at the helm lies an adventurous streak that seeks to test his teams by taking the imagined next step. What would a world of pressing, high turnovers, and shorter distance counter-attacks look like?
West Ham recorded a PPDA of 11.48 against Aston Villa on Sunday, 3.45 less than against Newcastle, 17.6 less than against Chelsea, and 19.62 less than against Brighton. PPDA represents the number of passes the opposition is able to make before a defensive action interrupts their possession – a lower number means more frequent disruptions to opposition possession, ergo a more intense press.
Admittedly, these numbers would be heavily impacted by the fact that West Ham took the lead in all three of those games but went behind against Villa, naturally creating the circumstances in which Moyes’ team would have to chase the game. But comparing the numbers from the first 15 minutes of each game still shows a significant difference in intent without the ball: vs Chelsea – 27.5, vs Brighton – 39, vs Newcastle – 20.2, and vs Aston Villa 9.5.
Thus, it is clear that Moyes set his team up with the intention of disrupting opposition possession more frequently and trying to win the ball back in more advanced positions. The problem is that opposition double-pivots hate David Moyes. No, the box midfield is a mystery that our manager is struggling to crack in matches where we would like to press a little higher. This is something we’ve seen happen countless times over the last 18 months and it really is quite simple: You can’t triangle a square.
When lining up in a 4-2-3-1 defensive formation, and when facing an opposition build-up double-pivot – a 3-2, 4-2 or 2-4 – Moyes’ side will either drop the striker and defend in a 4-4-2 where both the striker and the ten can sit between the opposition backline and midfield to disincentivise passes through the centre, or the striker will advance to close down the opposition centre-backs and leave the ten to cover two players at once. It’s in these situations, where the striker advances, that the major problems really begin – compounded and exploited by opposition usage of double tens (the box midfield).
Just two minutes into the game, here is an example of Villa building from their 4-2 shape and West Ham defending in that 4-2-3-1. Michail Antonio is pushed up between the centre-backs to try and force Villa down the side of the ball-carrier, wingers Lucas Paquetá and Jarrod Bowen are holding as wide as possible to be able to jump to the full-backs should they receive the ball, Tomáš Souček is man-marking opposition number six Boubacar Kamara, Edson Álvarez is holding back and keeping an eye on John McGinn, and James Ward-Prowse is sitting between Nicolo Zaniolo (off-screen behind him) and Douglas Luiz.
Immediately, we can see that Souček is overloaded on Villa’s line of two. Although West Ham do have a 3v2 on this line, with the wingers holding as wide as they are, it creates a central 2v1 that Souček is unable to cover alone.
Moving on just a second, we can see right-centre-back Ezri Konsa (under no direct pressure as Antonio instead takes up a position to cut off his centre-back partner Pau Torres) pick out a pass into the free player in Aston Villa’s double-pivot: Luiz. Ward-Prowse and Bowen both react to close down the Brazilian (an inefficiency in itself as it opens two routes to progression for Villa: Lucas Digne and Zaniolo) but the washing machine motion in midfield is already in effect and we’ll see the outcomes next.
Luiz draws Ward-Prowse all the way in before releasing back to Torres. This leaves an unopposed route to progression through the full-back and back inside to the ten. It is a complete reversal of the initial image we saw where Souček was outnumbered on the first line as there is now a belated 2v2 vs the opposition double-pivot but a 1v2 for Álvarez on the following line against the tens: McGinn and Zaniolo.
And this will always happen if the striker does not engage the ball-carrier and one of the deeper midfielders advances to remedy the 2v1 on the opposition’s second line. It’s simple: It’s a 4v3 in midfield and no matter which way you turn the three points of a triangle, they cannot numerically match the four points of a square.
This central overloading, in combination with the intent to press will always lead to situations where the opposition can progress through the middle and attack in space at speed; a set of circumstances that are surely antithetical to the guiding principles of a Moyes team and its resultant squad composition. You do not want Kurt Zouma running 40 yards towards his own goal facing Ollie Watkins 1v1.
So, what could West Ham do differently in these scenarios to ameliorate these issues and still support a more engaged off-ball approach? The players themselves presented one possible solution in this match and it saw much more aggressive ball-side narrowing to condense one side of the pitch and numerically match the box – generated by the far-side winger coming inside and the near-side winger advancing.
If we look at the solution to the opposition double-pivot 2v1 vs the ten from the first example, we can see Ward-Prowse jumping to transform the defensive system from a 4-2-3-1 to a situational 4-1-4-1. In examples where the press was more effective and led to high turnovers (that were not converted on the day because individuals were not at the sharpest/best level), we can see the far-side winger come inside to match the opposition double-pivot and create a situational 4-2-2-2 (matching Villa up) instead.
It gets a little confusing here because Paquetá is being slightly lazy about following Kamara, and Souček and Ward-Prowse have swapped over briefly but the point stands. At the moment of the turnover in this example, you can see how clearly defined the momentary 4-2-2-2 is.
This is not the first time I’ve written or talked on the podcast about this. In fact, it’s a running issue that we covered after the Newcastle game where Howe’s situational double-pivot caused similar problems as Ward-Prowse was forced to jump long distance to support Souček at ten. It’s always exploited ruthlessly when teams have the double ten set-up to immediately take advantage of the isolated six and it drove me mad midway through last season when we suffered game-after-game from this exact issue.
The truth might well be that without an extinction level event, a change of manager and a different squad to boot, that this team is just better at defending deeper and engaging less than attempting to step out, press, and wrestle more control from Premier League teams at a similar level. One hopes that Moyes recognises this and allows us to thrive from a more limited approach rather than fail in our attempts to evolve.
Embrace the Mesozoic. Become the dinosaurs. (Yeah, not sure about that ending???)
New pod out now discussing all of this and more!