Taking the Mic
Let’s start on a positive.
Michail Antonio’s a magnificent footballer and this game was yet another showcase of his ability to play with his back to goal:
He regularly pinned Leicester’s defenders, held the ball up, distributed it smartly, carried the team up the pitch, and finished his header brilliantly.
The bloke is Rumpelstiltskin, turning nothing passes up the line into attacking opportunities single-handedly. Without him, all of this collapses.
Onto the negatives.
Brendan Rodgers absolutely fucked it here. Maybe he didn’t want to change a winning team, maybe his hand was forced by injuries to Maddison and Praet, but the decision to stick with the 5–4–1 shape that vanquished City in a game where they were always going to have the majority of the ball was bizarre.
The extra player in the backline was totally unnecessary and by removing the extra man in midfield, Rodgers eliminated the possibility of his Leicester side killing transitions at source. In possession, they sorely missed a central attacking fulcrum, instead of just having Pérez and Barnes drift into those spaces. They found it much more difficult to get their full-backs involved and to get their underlapping runs functioning in this 5–4–1 shape.
Leicester were shite, but it was more a problem of their own making rather than anything we did.
Crawling out of the last ditch
On the defensive end, this was a re-run of the Arsenal game for us.
Leicester had no trouble quickly moving the ball through our midfield to find their forwards in space in the centre of the pitch. From there, they were looking for a pass in behind our defensive line all game long and the only thing that got us out of jail was some poorly weighted passing and some poor decision-making from Leicester’s players:
Balbuena read a few of them well and Coufal was able to mop up a couple on the cover (mostly because he was playing deeper than the rest of the defensive line), but all too often the Leicester player threading these through balls was under virtually no pressure and we were saved by sloppy execution or heavy touches from the attacker receiving the ball. The majority of the time, Ayoze Pérez was the one to get into the hole and play through balls, but he rushed these unpressured passes when he didn’t need to and got them wrong as a result. Perhaps that was a gamble that Moyes was willing to take here, but it’s inherently a hugely risky way of playing.
The whole point of setting up in a 5–4–1/3–4–3 is to restrict space in the middle of the pitch, funnel your opponents out wide, and defend in numbers. Outside of a 10 minute spell in the 2nd half where we genuinely frustrated Leicester, we didn’t achieve that here.
There were multiple occasions in this match where Angelo Ogbonna ended up isolated with Jamie Vardy out wide as the last line of defence. Ogbonna bought a cheap foul and Coufal made a slide tackle in the box running back towards his own touchline to stop those situations from escalating, but is that a sensible defensive strategy to rely on? The outcome worked in our favour this time, but the process is deeply, deeply suspect.
Defenders are there to defend, and Balbuena did quite well when called upon, but if you’re repeatedly putting them in situations where they’re desperately intervening to prevent 1vs1 situations, that’s not good defending.
Eventually this dynamic culminated in the two massive chances right at the end — Vardy’s skewed 1vs1 and the goal that was disallowed because Barnes had a shoulder blade offside:
I don’t think it’s any mistake that these occurred once Kelechi Iheanacho was on the pitch. After about an hour, Leicester switched back to the 4–2–3–1 and when Iheanacho came on, he slotted into that role just behind Vardy. In that position, he had the composure and quality to use the space granted to him by our defensive shape to actually pick the right pass; first that slide into Vardy’s path, then the perfectly cushioned ball round the corner for the Barnes combination goal. Had he started the game in Leicester’s usual shape (or had Maddison been available), our defensive system wouldn’t have been able to stop him.
This wasn’t a case of us limiting good opportunities; it was a case of Leicester getting their execution slightly wrong. We did well to mop up once it happened but ultimately prevention is better than cure.
Keep defending like this and we’re going to get picked apart regularly.
Creating your own luck? Or rub of the green?
At the other end of the pitch, I have my reservations about this team’s attacking ability on the whole. The last two results have hugely flattered us.
Let’s have a look at the goals we’ve scored in the last two games: two instances of clever opportunism to catch teams out by quickly taking free-kicks; a couple of excellent finishes from Bowen from just outside the box; a shot that rebounded off the post and fell to our player in the 6-yard box; an OG from a corner; a towering header against a team that had given up; and a superb touch from Fornals to control a hopeful punt forwards (but mostly upwards).
You can argue that is a reductive way of looking at things and that I’m doing a disservice to the individual quality shown by our players to capitalise on those instances. But I don’t think you can avoid the fact that there’s a hefty element of fortune that’s gone in our favour with several of those goals.
I think an important question to ask when evaluating how effective you are as an attacking side is: can we score these goals every week? Is the way we are creating chances replicable?
We’ve seen over the last 5 seasons that Cresswell can’t consistently deliver that kind of cross, even if he’s got the time and space to do his shoelaces up before striking the ball like he did yesterday.
Can Fornals play those through balls into Bowen when he’s not taking a quick free-kick/the game isn’t massively stretched because we’re 2–0 up away from home?
Bowen’s showed himself to be an excellent finisher at Championship level but is he really good enough to convert his shots at the current rate (3 league goals from 11 shots so far)?
It’s a big no from me.
We were the better side against Wolves. We were probably the better side here (although luck was on our side with the two late chances, too).
In my eyes, to be a good side, you have to show that you’re capable of creating chances in different ways. If all you’ve got is opportunism, then you’ve got a problem.
I’m fully aware that I’m rubbing against the grain here, but I’m not fickle enough to let a couple of ok performances and glossy results change my perspective on this group of players and this shift in system.
This squad have had few problems playing in games where they could exclusively play on the counter. We won 20 Premier League matches under Pellegrini and 12 of them came when we had <50% of the ball, with virtually all of those games against possession heavy teams or teams who play a high defensive line:
Same story for Moyes: 7 Premier League games won, 7 with less than 50% of the ball, almost all against high lines or teams who try to dominate possession.
But there’s a significant factor here that gets overlooked: game state plays a massive part in making reactive football successful.
Of these 19 wins, West Ham have scored the first goal in 17 of them; only in the two 3–2 victories against Palace (A) in 18/19 and Chelsea(H) 19/20 have we conceded the first goal of the game. In 10 of them, we’d scored within the first 20 minutes.
Maybe starting well and being able to regularly score the first goal is the sign of a good team. It certainly makes it much easier to sit back and counter punch when your opposition have to chase the game for 70+ minutes. But our opening goals vs Wolves and Leicester have come from these quick free-kicks that have caught our opponents off-guard, and I’m not sure how much you can rely on that trick.
Either way, the overriding point is that this set of players have been a decent counter attacking side across both of the last two managers. Pellegrini was ultimately doomed by his inability to beat similarly matched teams when we were forced to be proactive. Thus far, Moyes has had the same problem and I’ve seen nothing from his approach to indicate he can rectify that.
This is how I see the game and I stand by it. Either we change the way we’re playing or this is going to catch up with us.