Can West Ham crash the top tier party?
The last three seasons of the Premier League have led to the terms ‘top six’ and ‘big six’ being somewhat interchangeable. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have occupied those spots without fail. A perfect storm of a couple of managers with club legend status but questionable managerial credentials, a transfer ban for one team, unsettled major earners at some, a few key departures at others and the continued pressure of competing on multiple fronts might just see those six broken apart for the first time since 2015/16.
West Ham United finished tenth last season and have the promising combination of a Premier League winning manager on the bench, a run of financially profitable seasons and, in a departure from recent seasons, the good sense not to set fire to those profits in the transfer window. Smart spending on recruiting, on top of everything else, has given West Ham the air of the upwardly mobile. The Hammers have been tipped in some quarters as one of the teams that might puncture the top six this season but do last season’s stats coupled with analysis of their new signings and existing squad support this as a realistic aspiration?
West Ham United kicked off the 2018/19 season, their eighth spent consecutively in the Premier League, with a 4-0 loss at Liverpool and followed that up with three more defeats in a row. A fairly good group of attacking players and some pretty stark defensive issues resulted in a topsy turvy, predictably unpredictable season which included four wins a row during December, three straight losses at the end of March and victories in each of their final three games. Not exactly forever blowing bubbles and not exactly forever blowing ballgames, just a whole lot of uncertainty which ultimately landed them right in the middle at tenth.
Manuel Pellegrini had followed a grab bag of the usual suspects in Redknapp, Pardew, Allardyce and, most recently, Bilic and Moyes as manager and can point to a leap of three places and ten points compared to 2017/18 performance as progress. Underpinning this was an improvement in attack with almost two additional shots taken per match, moving the Hammers to eight lowest shots per match from fourth lowest, and an increase of xG per match of around 0.25. The shot count improved at the other end too, from the second most conceded in 2017/18 to the sixth most conceded in 2018/19. However, Pellegrini’s team gave up some very good shots at times and actually conceded 1.49 xG per match, an increase of around 0.12 per match compared to 2017/18.
The reality is that while West Ham United were seen by many as a fun, quite attacking mid table team their offensive metrics were never really more impressive than mid table and many of their defensive metrics were, well, quite a bit lower down the table.
Felipe Anderson is a good ball carrier from the left but his shot map resembles the diet version of Wilfried Zaha’s. He combined well with Marko Arnautovic’s bootleg Zlatan bit (at least in physique and arrogant nature) through the middle and Michail Antonio or Andriy Yarmolenko popped up with the occasional finish to a move from the right side but the sum of these parts was just the eleventh best open play xG per match in the division. On the other side of the ball a lack of willing, capable pressing from the front, mobility and ball wining deficiencies in midfield and quality issues at fullback led to the average West Ham United defensive action being located closer to their own goal than that of any other Premier League team and to the Hammers gifting their opponents the most clear shots, allowing the second highest xG per shot conceded and conceding the third most xG from open play per match in the division.
West Ham’s midfield, particularly when it comprised the good but not yet great Declan Rice and the good but never was great Mark Noble, was a pretty porous place at times. Rice deserves respect for playing regularly at this level at the age of just twenty and is a fine recycler of possession. Noble is still a fine leader but while his ability to organise others may not have diminished, his command over his own legs has. Played together there is a both a lack of variation in possession or smart vertical movement and, perhaps more critically, real issues in terms of covering ground and putting out defensive fires. Those fires kept igniting for the Hammers between the lines and in wide areas.
Arthur Masuaku has been given a contract extension this week tying him to the club until 2024 and seems to get a pass from Pellegrini for defensive errors in those wide areas given the perceived value he adds in attack. It’s not clear that his dribbling out of defence during transitions really adds all that much in an attacking sense to the team but he is not alone in terms of being suspect at times defensively. His competitor at left back, Aaron Cresswell, and the right backs Ryan Fredericks and Pablo Zabaleta did not excel at the back last season and none of the four has the two way ability required for a player in this position at the very top level. Nineteen year old Ben Johnson, a converted winger capable of playing on either defensive side, has impressed in preseason but might not be ready to stake a claim to be first choice in this problem position yet.
One player who must continue to be not just a first choice in his position but perhaps first choice on the team sheet is Lukas Fabianski. The thirty-four year old Polish goalkeeper was, well, fab! Last season Fabianski saved West Ham’s bacon to a quite incredible extent by keeping out almost fourteen goals more than a league average goalkeeper would have been expected to. That’s significantly more than anyone else in the Premier League managed in 2018/19 and even exceeds the performance of David De Gea in the same metric in 2017/18.
Overall, the attacking improvement and goalkeeping heroics did lead to an improvement in results but a jump from the fourth worst xG difference in 2017/18 to just the sixth worst xG difference in 2018/19 justifies some skepticism about expectations that the club can end this forthcoming season higher up the table than tenth, let alone in the top six.
Pellegrini, in tandem with Director of Football Mario Husillos, appears to be able to exert more influence over the club ownership in terms of recruitment than previous managers and there seems to be a transfer strategy with an eye on the longer term than before. While the midfield may still be in need of a mobile ball winner and progressor such as Ibrahim Sangare or Erick Pulgar and there could certainly be an upgrade at fullback, gone are the days of filtering a shortlist for free agents with league title winning experience in their distant past or scrabbling around for any old striker as deadline day approached.
The Hammers’ new record signing, Sebastian Haller, could certainly be considered indicative of a smarter approach. Purchased for around £45 million this summer from Eintracht Frankfurt the twenty-five year old Frenchman is a modern center forward, capable of contributing in multiple ways and possessing a highly impressive statistical profile. He’s been on the StatsBomb radar for some time and, given that within the top five leagues in 2018/19 he had the eighth highest scoring contribution (Goals + Assists) per ninety minutes overall and the third highest xG per shot of any forward, might represent something of a coup for West Ham United.
Haller signed his first professional contract, for Auxerre, between appearances at the 2011 FIFA under 17 World Cup before moving to FC Utrecht in the Netherlands on loan in 2015. That loan became a permanent move and a fine goal scoring record under the management of Erik Ten Hag led to a step up the footballing ladder to the Bundesliga in May 2017. At Eintracht Frankfurt he often formed part of an excellent three man attack alongside Luka Jovic and Ante Rebic and has shown himself to be a mobile and strong athlete with a good touch who is able to drop deep to create space for others and link play, dominate in the air, press intelligently and hit a varied range of powerful strikes from great shooting locations.
These attributes led to an impressive twenty goals and twelve assists in thirty-nine Bundesliga and Europa League matches last season. Haller did not exceed two shots per ninety minutes in either of his Bundesliga seasons and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to a system where he is likely to be a solo forward with more of an expectation to be the main goal getter. An encouraging sign could be that during Eintracht Frankfurt’s drive to the 2018/19 Europa League semi-finals he did push the needle to over two and a half shots per ninety minutes and, while his shot quality and xG assisted did reduce, he was able to marginally increase his xG per 90 in comparison to what he achieved in the Bundesliga.
One source of more shots for Haller could be the playmaking of fellow summer signing Pablo Fornals. The twenty-three year old Spaniard set up twelve La Liga goals in the 2017/18 season for his Villareal teammates and his range of passing, sharp vision, positivity in possession and ability to break through the lines could lead to plenty of chances for his new side. In 2018/19 as part of a generally very poor Villareal side shorn of top scorer Cedric Bakambu he did experience a dip in output to just three assists and a corresponding, if less dramatic, reduction in open play xG Assisted from 0.23 to 0.16. Ideally last season should temper expectations and allow the highly regarded Fornals time to adapt to a new league and playing system. He is versatile positionally and can create from wide areas but is best suited to a role through the middle as he needs to be involved, running the play and on the ball. In that position he can add urgency to a team, getting them into attacking areas through his good engine, smart movement and instinctual ability to get out of trouble in one on one situations. Haller and Anderson in particular could benefit from his capacity to play defence splitting passes while carrying the ball on the counter attack. Fornals is a winner, having been one of the best players at Spain’s 2019 Under 21 European Championship triumph, and could perhaps be something like the player that the Hammers hoped they were getting when they signed Jack Wilshire. Of course with that extra added ingredient of actually being able to play a full season’s worth of football!
Haller and Fornals are significant steps in the right direction but more smart moves are needed if West Ham are to make the leap they want to. There is a possibility that those bad defensive numbers continue, Fabianski doesn’t replicate anything like last season’s form this go around and things don’t immediately click at the other end of the pitch. Perhaps best case scenario is maintaining at mid table for the next couple of seasons while phasing out some older pieces, including now second oldest manager in the league Pellegrini, and continuing to replace them with younger pieces that share the club’s aspirations to improve. Basically, keep coming back for these previews Hammers fans. There are reasons to be cautious about 2019-20 but plenty to be optimistic about in your near future.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association