West Ham's Reinvigorated Attack
West Ham are the most fun midtable team in the league. Manuel Pellegrini has crafted the London side into a squad that musters enough on the attacking end to make up for the fact that they simply can’t stop anybody. Combine that with great goalkeeping from Lukasz Fabianski and what’s left is a side that performs moderately well and entertains well beyond that.
West Ham being terrible defensively is nothing new. Last season they allowed opponents 1.43 expected goals per match, the third worst total in the league. This season they’re allowing opponents 1.44, the fourth worst. The stylistic differences between last season’s amalgam of Slaven Bilić and David Moyes, and Pellegrini show up in their shots conceded numbers. Bilić, and especially Moyes, played a more traditional defensive style, causing West Ham to concede a lot of shots, 15.47, the second most in the league. Pellegrini on the other hand demands that his defensive line hold firm around the top of the 18 yard box come what may, which helps reduce shot totals, eight teams are conceding more than their 13.09, just not overall defensive performance.
In attack, however, Pellegrini’s changes have been about substantive improvement as well as style. West Ham are simply a markedly better attacking side than last year’s outfit.
Last year the side averaged only 0.94 xG, only five teams in the Premier League were worse. They took only 9.92 total shots, the third worst average in the league. This season, they’re averaging 1.28 xG per match, the seventh best total in the Premier League, despite taking 12.05 shots per match, a mark which 13 other teams better. West Ham’s 0.11 xG per shot is the fifth best mark in the league, behind only Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham.
Some of this is simply an issue of improved talent in attack. The team added a bona fide superstar in Felipe Anderson, and he’s been playing like one all season long. He’s the teams most important player in possession. He leads the squad in deep progressions per 90 with 6.72. He leads the team in xG assisted per 90 with 0.21. He has more than twice as many passes into the box from open play, 2.41, as anybody else on the squad. On the defensive side of the ball he’s third on the team in pressures with 20.61 per 90. And he also contributes a solid 0.18 xG per 90, fourth most on the squad. The fact that he has eight goals from open play (despite only 3.92 expected goals) is a wonderful added bonus, but it’s his non goal scoring skills that have really shined. And, as his fine but not spectacular radar shows (or doesn't) a number of the things he's impressive at are not things typically in a winger's game.
Anderson’s ability to bring the ball forward, beat a defender and then play high risk/high reward passes into the box is an important feature for an attack that depends on strikers getting high quality shots. Javier Hernandez is living his best poacher’s life this season. He’s only played fairly limited minutes, with seven starts and seven substitute appearances, he’s turned only 19 shots into four goals while actually running slightly behind expectations.
Anderson’s ability to bring the ball forward has also allowed Marko Arnautović to focus exclusively on his striker duties, and also allows Michail Antonio to focus on attacking the penalty area from the opposite wing. Broadly speaking, the left side of the squad brings the ball up the pitch and the right side finishes the move off. Arnautović and Antonio lead the team in shots per 90 with 2.96 and 2.94 respectively and trail only Chicharito in xG per 90 with 0.36 and 0.38.
Arnautović poses an interesting question for West Ham. He’s currently heavily linked with a move to China. He’s 29 years old and unlikely to fetch much of a large transfer fee again. Also, West Ham, despite their successful year desperately need to reload on young talent. Weighted by minutes, the team’s average age is 28.1 years old, well older than the league average of 26.9. Only Issa Diop in defense, Grady Diangana on the wing and Declan Rice in midfield are truly young prospects. In other words, despite the surprisingly fun and competitive experience of this season, West Ham are going to have a bunch of squad work to do in the coming windows. It’s hard to justify holding onto a 29 year old, good but not great striker who can fetch a lot of money to reinvest elsewhere in the squad.
Speaking of Rice, his ability to win a spot in West Ham’s midfield at only 20 is very encouraging. There’s still a large question about what kind of player he’s going to become though. Right now, he’s a strong player in possession who is good at ball retention and not much else.
That’s a useful player, but not necessarily a great one. Being extremely safe and reliable in possession while being mostly average elsewhere isn’t enough in and of itself to become a great midfielder. Right now Rice is good enough to start for West Ham, but not much more. And, honestly, given how poor West Ham is defensively, and how much of the work of moving the ball up the field happens on the wings, Rice along with his partner Mark Noble are probably the weakest link in the squad.
But at only 20 there’s plenty of time for Rice to develop, it’s just a question of what he’s going to add to his game. Either he needs to become more incisive when it comes to moving the ball up the field or he needs to become a better defensive presence. The first route will allow him to become more press resistant. Rather than simply maintain possession and find a safe outlet as he does now (a valuable skill in its own right), if he was able to either beat players off the dribble or play more vertical passes he’d become a player who actually turns being pressed into an advantage for his side.
Or, if the defensive side of his game develops, then he’d be able to hold down the center in a system that deployed him as a lone pivot. The ability to free your other midfielders to press, knowing that Rice is behind them with not only the ability to clean up defensively, but also maintain possession when he does so, would be a huge bonus for any side. But he’s not there yet.
Rice , right now, is getting an opportunity (largely thanks to the shocking development of Jack Wilshere being injured and most of West Ham’s other midfielders being bad) that few young players are afforded. He’s probably (despite his game winning goal against Arsenal) not quite good enough to be on the pitch as a regular starter, but by getting the opportunity to put these minutes under his belt at such a young age, it will hopefully help him develop the skills he needs to going forward.
West Ham are pretty good and lots of fun this season. They play an open, attacking brand of football that uses their best player’s skills to the fullest. Their defense is terrible, but they mostly compensate for it. The one drawback is that the team is sufficiently old that this probably isn’t the start of a steady group of players leading the London side to regular, if limited, success. Any sustained progress from the club will have to come from a new generation of talent taking over as players in their late 20s and early 30s move on. But, if players like Rice, Diop and Diangana continue to develop there’s no reason to think that isn’t possible. This year’s success is fun, but a corps of young talented players to lead the side into the future, that’s the most exciting prospect of all.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association