West Ham were in the relegation zone at this stage last season but are battling for a top-four finish this term – so what’s changed?
The Hammers currently sit in fifth, two points behind Chelsea but with a game in hand. That’s quite a turnaround: David Moyes’ side languished in 18th spot at the same stage last season.
There’s a sense of growing internal optimism and expectation. Speaking after the 2-0 win over Leeds, Moyes said: “I’m not going to say we’re going to finish in [the top four], but why can we not hang in there and see what we can do?”
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The trajectory of the Hammers’ improvement has also been steady throughout the campaign and they have resided in the top half of the table since matchday eight – finally breaking into the top four late last month.
Drilling down to the team’s success since Moyes returned to the club in 2019, the graphic below clearly reveals a broader development.
West Ham have improved more than any other club over the past two seasons since Project Restart – scoring more goals and shipping far fewer at the other end.
As the interactive chart below reveals, much of that improvement derives from a spike in home form – despite playing in an empty London Stadium.
No angst between owners and fans
By Sky Sports’ Gary Neville:
“The atmosphere at West Ham sometimes in that stadium can be pretty unpleasant for the West Ham players if they are losing.
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“The idea that they go there knowing that they are not going to have to face that – they have got a really good team as well, and I like the team – but I definitely think they also thrive through the fact there is not what would be that angst between the owners and the fans, that element of what would be tension that exists sometimes and that allows the players to thrive.
“They have got a good spine, good players around that spine as well. There are a couple of players who are thriving, I think, because they have been allowed to play with freedom and the ability they have got. Now you hope that lives beyond what would be the fans returning to the stadium.”
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What area has improved most?
The graphic below charts the average number of goals scored and conceded over a rolling five-game period and reveals the Hammers have clearly improved at both ends of the pitch this season – despite a midseason wobble.
For the first time in recent years, the Hammers have recorded superior average goal difference for almost the entire campaign – having also matched their most prolific scoring streak from January 2018 in October last year.
Expected goals data emphasises this dominance and reiterates how their current success has not been borne from luck but by consistently creating clearer chances and conceding fewer than their opponents this term.
Reverting to a back four
Moyes deployed a five-man defence in nine of the Hammers’ opening 10 league fixtures this season, but abruptly reverted to a back four in the 2-1 defeat with Manchester United in early December – and has rarely looked back.
Last season’s favoured 4-2-3-1 appears to be the default system again, with Aaron Cresswell moving back into his familiar left-back role after starting the season on the left of a three.
So has the system changed since last term?
West Ham’s average positions appear finely balanced and symmetrical, suggesting a clear structure and approach. The wingers frequently drop infield, while the full-backs and sitting midfielders play key roles.
To that end, little has changed in the actual set-up since last season – but Moyes has implemented a clear progressive tweak by pushing the attacking midfielder further upfield to support the striker.
Need for speed in possession
In terms of West Ham’s recent evolution, speed and energy stands out most – epitomised by a raft of new recruits in Vladimir Coufal, Jarrod Bowen, Said Benrahma and Jesse Lingard.
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Indeed, advanced Opta data reveals West Ham travel upfield faster than any other Premier League team in possession this term – in addition to recording a league-topping increase in this metric compared with last season.
Savvy transfers, at last
Arguably, Tomas Soucek was this season’s bargain signing at just £15m from Slavia Prague after a six-month loan spell at the London Stadium, and he joins the aforementioned recent signings of Coufal, Bowen, Benrahma and Lingard – in addition to on-loan centre-back Craig Dawson from Watford.
If you scroll through the Hammers’ previous transfer dealings below, it becomes clear the club appears to have finally mastered the transfer market – while also eking out bargain talent from foreign leagues and the Championship.
New signings and old guard reign
Those recent signings – with the exception of Benrahma and Lingard – and long-serving sextet Declan Rice, Cresswell, Lukasz Fabianski, Angelo Ogbonna, Pablo Fornals and Michail Antonio have racked up the most league minutes at the club this term.
The impact of these regular starters bears out across a raft of league-topping metrics.
Soucek’s aerial menace has contributed towards the team’s 11 headed goals – boosted by 142 successful crosses from the injection of width and pace. Meanwhile, the team is yet to make an error leading to a goal and ranks third for interceptions.
The solid rearguard is emphasised further by the fact only five clubs have conceded fewer league goals this term: Manchester City, Chelsea, Villa, Tottenham and Arsenal.
Dawson has excelled in his return to the top flight, while Ogbonna has produced his most stellar season to date in a West Ham shirt, while Issa Diop has also shone – but Rice and Soucek have played key roles in protecting the centre-backs.
Carra: Soucek and Rice stand out
By Sky Sports’ Jamie Carragher:
“Soucek and Declan Rice are square of each other… Those two together as a partnership are the two that stand out for me.
“Talking about West Ham being the best in the league for set-pieces, Soucek is a big part of that. I’ve spoken about Soucek defending well, when we are talking about box-to-box midfielders, there’s nobody better in the Premier League right now than Soucek.
“The goals stand out massively – that is huge for a midfield player and is a big reason why West Ham are where they are. Aerial duels won is just off the scale. No midfielder in the last 10 years has managed that many… since Marouane Fellaini!
“And Rice has travelled forward with the ball at his feet more than any other midfielder in the league. He’s not just a sitting midfielder, there’s more to his game. I think he’s a top player, Declan Rice. I’m a big fan of his.”
It is also perhaps unsurprising the pair also cover the most ground at the club. Soucek ranks second in the league, behind only James Ward-Prowse with 326.1km covered to date, while Rice ranks fifth on 302.8km.
But the next hardest grafters are the equally essential full-back pairing of Cresswell and Coufal.
If Soucek were to win the hypothetical ‘bargain transfer’ award, then team-mate and fellow Slavia Prague import Coufal would almost certainly claim the runner-up prize. Costing only £5m, the right-back has been a revelation.
The graphic below reveals West Ham’s main attacking threat has come from that right flank, despite a slightly higher proportion generated down the opposing wing.
Indeed, Cresswell produces the bulk of danger down the left and has created a team-topping seven assists this term – only five players in the league have notched more. The next most prolific creator at West Ham? Coufal.
Lingard class strengthens quest
While the midfield duo and full-backs stand out, so too do the wingers and star frontman Antonio, who has once again struggled with hamstring injuries this season.
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But signing Lingard from Manchester United in January has proved an instant success and poured further fuel on the Hammers’ drive for European qualification.
The 28-year-old certainly appears to have a point to prove and has been providing firm evidence with every appearance in claret and blue, while also providing healthy rotation and competition for wide berths with Bowen and Benrahma.
Unfortunately for West Ham fans, Lingard will be ineligible to face his parent club when the Hammers travel to face United at Old Trafford live on Sky Sports this Sunday – but the clubs’ horns remain firmly locked in the quest for Europe.
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